At the crux of turmoil, whether it be political, social, spiritual, or ascetic, man comes to the breaking point – not a man, but man itself. Man is the ultimatum of existence and experience, and at man’s breaking point, we find the true yolk of the fragile egg that is self-conflict. Self-importance is the center of self-conflict (“what’s my purpose?”) and man’s objective as a self-centered species is to survive. So why then do some choose suicide? Or better yet, why do they do so in the alleged name of a greater cause? The cynical approach would be to assume that what a martyr desires more than anything is a sword to fall on; the sharper that sword is, the more valiant and worthy of remembrance he may seem. He still accepts death upon himself though.
In Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger, we witness this in motion. Bobby Sands is an Irish Republican subjected to the horrors of Northern Ireland’s HM Maze Prison in 1981, when he finally decides to spearhead a hunger strike in the prison to protest the targeting of IRA members and the unjust conditions in which they were subsequently treated. Bobby elects to starve himself to death. Maybe it will put a stop to something. Belay the fact that this eventually escalated to a straight up showdown with Margaret Thatcher; this film’s preoccupations are less political than existential. Whereas in real life, Bobby’s actions were a representation of his cause, the film paints him as a representation of man itself. He’s a pendulum that swings between death as surrender and death as righteousness. So where do we draw the line? What’s the difference between suicide and martyrdom?
Hunger recounts the last days of Bobby Sands rather than examining the full political troubles that the Irish Nationalist has become a part of. It’s a mood piece, rather than a historical docudrama. As in McQueen’s subsequent forays in masterpiece filmmaking with Shame (2011) and 12 Years A Slave (2013), the savvy director makes precise strokes in avenues of empathy. Giving us such a personal connection with these men who have essentially become bereft of self-value is tough, especially in such an impersonal film as Hunger. It’s a movie that barely uses words to express its feelings and phenomena, save for one scene.
The penultimate sequence preceding Bobby’s hunger strike is a one take 18-minute conversation with a priest, Dom, that allows the constant theme of the morality of martyrdom to ebb and flow through it. An elegantly angry Michael Fassbender finally expresses his desire to champion a hunger strike. Years in the paling conditions of the Maze Prison may have made him go mad. Or they may have made him so much more resolute in his own goal. It’s a pitting of wits between these two seemingly unequal men who see each other as equal, and appeal to the sentiments of one another. Bobby and Dom verbally spar to persuade the other in their definition of the imminent hunger strike. But reason is no respecter of the sheer difference between individuals.
“Jesus Christ had a backbone; the same as them disciples, every disciple since,” Bobby says, “You need the revolutionary; you need the cultural political soldiers to give life a pulse, to give life a direction.” Dom even asks Bobby if he’s looking for martyrdom. When Bobby denies this, Dom says: “You sure? Because I’ve heard you eulogizing Wolf Tone, MacSwinney, all them men. Can’t help thinking you’re writing your name large in them history books.” At the end of all things, we wonder if Bobby’s persecution has led to a madness in him that persuades him to pursue fame through this means. But we also believe in his reasoning. “Putting my life on the line is not just the only thing I can do, Dom. It’s the right thing.” His justifications are rooted in the emotions of his past, something that all of us unknowingly do. But the film’s depiction of Bobby Sands uses his past as a touchstone:
“Lying in the water is a wee foal, four five days old, he’s all skin and bone, grey colour, and he’s got flecks of blood on his coat ‘cos he’s cut himself sharply on them rocks. We were just standing over him and you can see his back leg snapped. He’s breathing, he’s alive, just about. So this big conversation gets started up between the boys who suddenly make themselves the leaders, deliberating what we should do. Someone said drop a rock on his head. But I’m looking in their faces and I can see they’re either scared stiff or clueless. It’s all bravado. And this foal on the ground, in real pain, all this chitchat going on, going nowhere. Next thing the priest sees us, sees the foal, tells us not to move we’re done for. We’re really done for. A group of boys will always get the blame for hurting a foal. Group of Belfast boys will take a hammering for sure. So it’s clear to me in a instant, and I’m down on my knees, and I take the foal’s head in my hands and I put it under water. He’s thrashing around a bit at the start so I press down harder until he’s drowned. Priest arrives, Don. He’s dragging me by the hair through the woods, promising me a proper hiding. But I knew I did the right thing by that wee foal. And I could take the punishment for all our boys. I had the respect of them other boys now, and I knew that. I’m clear of the reasons Don. I’m clear of the repercussions. But I will act, and I will not stand by and do nothing.”
The passion of Bobby Sands is more a journey towards self-actualization than an answer to general morality. But because his experience is made so identifiable through minute details, his struggle feels universal nonetheless. The more specific his memories are, and the more that they reaffirm his actions, the more we relate with him regardless of our differences from him. Bobby’s emotional ties to his story of the foal are a microcosm of his goals in his commitment to a united Ireland. That’s why Hunger’s focus on the emotional journey rather than the political one is so important. Instead it is something starker and more precise, with a single-mindedness to match that of its subject, a man who decides to starve himself to death. McQueen employs several unique strategies to make us empathize greater with characters and events we’ve never even heard of, especially through vivid detail. His direction brings a tactile intensity to the imagery. When you see a drop of rain on someone’s knuckle, you feel it because you know that physical sensation, however minute it may be. That sensory experience brings you closer to an emotional one.
Recreating the brutal conditions in which that decision was made and the harrowing physical decline that followed, “Hunger” is a visceral film with a philosophical bent, a meditation on will and endurance, on the human body as the ultimate site of protest More than most artists, McQueen is reluctant to let his work be diminished by interpretation and analysis. It is hard to miss the overtones of Christian art and iconography in the film, especially in the Passion-like final act, but McQueen, without exactly disavowing the religious associations, shrugs them off. It’s a naked skinny guy dying, so the comparisons are unavoidable. People mythologize it because that’s easier to digest, which brings it inevitably closer to the martyrdom side of the spectrum. His passion, resolve, and hopeful impact undeniably paint that kind of picture. But this scene with the priest transports the audience to a fork in the road, allowing us to analyze Bobby’s decision the same way Dom does. It makes us truly question whether it’s suicide or martyrdom.
Alas, we find that it’s a not a question we can really answer with words. There’s no string of verbiage I can throw onto this article that can explain where we draw that line. The difference between suicide and martyrdom is not so concrete a concept to be expressed verbally. But maybe it’s something we can feel. Bobby Sands is the entirety of man here, deciding what it’s worth to put his life on the line for something greater than man. We can never really know if it was because he truly believed it would make a change or if he knew his name would be remembered or if he simply was done with life in the Maze Prison. Either way, we feel his resolution. That’s McQueen’s talent in this film, utilizing triggering cues, however faint they may be, to tug at the our grasp of phenomenology and make us empathize with the traumas and confusions of the events onscreen. We can’t explain why Bobby goes through with starving himself for a cause, or at least explain it persuasively. But we can certainly feel it just as certainly as we can feel those faint raindrops that impact his knuckles earlier on.
Image Credits: Photo Source: Flickr