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Wednesday, April 28, 2010


 

Hunger, having your cake and eating it too


The seemingly contradictory title of this post comes because this is two posts in one. Let's start with "Hunger" - my comments on my recent viewing of the eponymous film, a docudrama about the blanket protest held by Irish Republican prisoners in the Maze prison in the mid-70's, and the hunger strike to death which followed. The film was authored by an artist, Steve McQueen, and the cinematography very much reflects that - every shot is framed with an artist's eye. The acting is also quite good. But, unlike virtually every other movie I mention here, this is a movie I absolutely cannot recommend, and in fact would steer people away from.

The basic problem with the film is that it's totally decontextualized. It's more of a performance piece about the simultaneously tedious and terrifying life in this prison (for both prisoners and guards) than it is a film about a historical event. Why on earth are the prisoners wearing blankets and smearing their feces on the wall? What are they fighting for? For that matter, what is Irish Republicanism and what were they fighting that got them in prison in the first place? You hardly get a clue in the film. If you aren't thoroughly grounded in the actual events behind the film, you'll be lost. Just as a small example, when Bobby Sands is conducting his hunger strike, at one point a kindly guard/nurse is replaced by a surly one who flashes his fist, on which "U-D-A" is tattooed on the knuckles. But if you don't know that "UDA" stands for "Ulster Defence Association" and exactly what the significance of that is, you miss the point entirely.

It's not just small things like that, though, but again it's the entire question of what this protest is about in the first place. In the film, the audience sees and hears exactly one thing - the demand to wear one's own clothes. And certainly that was a demand, and a key symbolic one. But what was it symbolic of? It was symbolic of the real underlying demand, which was for being granted the status of political prisoners/prisoners of war, a status which in fact had been the case in the years before the protest. The right to manage their own affairs, teach themselves classes, in short not to be treated any way like ordinary prisoners, but like prisoners of war in a prison of war camp. Not a symbolic issue, but very real issues.

But let's assume the film was made only for an Irish and British audience of an age to be familiar with the events portrayed. Even on that level, the film is a fraud. Throughout the film, we are made to feel sympathy for both the guards and the prisoners. The guards live in (justifiable) fear for their lives outside the prison, and inside the prison have tedious and sometimes downright disgusting jobs. We do see the prisoners being beaten by the guards, but most of their suffering, without the context above, would seem to be virtually self-inflicted (and certainly one can view the hunger strike that way), which means if anything we are being led to feel more sympathy for the guards than for the prisoners.

But that per se isn't the biggest problem with the film. That comes with Bobby Sands' hunger strike which fills the last third of the film (incidentally, IMDB claims it's about "the last six weeks of Bobby Sands' life" which is nonsense because it shows his hunger strike, which lasted 66 days until he died, from before it started until the end). And what's wrong with that part of the film? Because we see nothing about what that hunger strike accomplished. Watching the film, we see Bobby Sands slowly starving himself to death alone in a room. Literally the only voice from the outside world that ever penetrates this world is Maggie Thatcher's, proclaiming that she'll never give in.

But in the real world, this isn't remotely what happened. Bobby Sands' hunger strike had a huge effect, as you can see if you watch the DVD extras which include a contemporaneous BBC news program. The hunger strike was constant news, and there were huge outpourings of support. Sands was elected to Parliament during the hunger strike (a fact mentioned during the closing credits). The BBC program reports a huge increase in recruitment by the IRA, and Sands' funeral (not shown in the film) was attended by 100,000 people. The very opposite of spending 66 days alone in a room starving himself to death. And indeed, during an interview in another one of the extras, the filmmaker (who wrote and directed the film) says he was attracted to the subject because the events were imprinted on him as a boy by all the news coverage. So he was well aware that Sands' hunger strike was not some isolated personal act but a political act that had a huge political impact. Should he have made a simple documentary? No, he's an artist, and he wanted us to focus on images and feelings instead of just facts, that's certainly his right. But manipulating our feelings by showing us some facts but not others, that is not all right.

So, finally, we come to the second part of the post - "having your cake and eating it too." I did get one thing out of this film, which was this thought. The blanket protesters were fighting for the right to be treated as political prisoners, as members of an army fighting the British occupation of Ireland. Now think about the United States, today. The U.S. claims it is fighting a war. Not a metaphorical war, like the "war on drugs", but a very real war, one which gives the President and the government all sorts of special powers (like the ability to order the death of an American citizen without a trial and a conviction, or the ability to put people in prison indefinitely). But in this allegedly very real war, the United States holds, as far as I know, not a single prisoner of war. They did, if I recall correctly, hold a few (high members of the Iraqi Army) at the very beginning of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, although once the Iraqi government was toppled and the war against the government of Iraq concluded, those prisoners were not repatriated as would be normal at the conclusion of a war. But, again as far as I know, right now the U.S. holds not a single person designated as a "prisoner of war." So how is it possible, then, that the U.S. is actually fighting a war? It's possible, of course, because "might makes right," and allows the U.S. government to "have its cake and eat it too."


Why stop here? There's more...

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