Hungry Ghost

Large-hunger Paul Helliwell on Steve McQueen's film Hunger in Mute:

Re-enactment in politics often affirms the closure of questions, fixing meanings. In art or film it often serves to re-open questions, to bring something back. In both there is a faith that re-enactment is not numbing repetition but rehearsal, practice making perfect.ii Think of the Northern Ireland marching season as an attempt to legitimise protestant ascendancy, to prevent the redistribution of roles within Ulster. But what are the aesthetics and the politics of McQueen’s re-enactment, narrative and mise-en-scène? What is the redistribution being proposed here? What is McQueen trying to bring back?

‘McQueen and his collaborators take us to a time and place that already seems unimaginable’, says Ian Christie in Sight and Sound. To be honest, it is not just the worryingly accurate ’70s and ’80s clothes, breakfasts, gender roles, suburban repression, and concrete that seem unimaginable, but the degree of political conviction of those years. The end titles tell us the hunger strike ended with the recognition of every demand but the key one – that republican prisoners be recognised as political prisoners and treated as a special category. Just as the war in the six counties (or ‘the troubles’, if you will) ended with a recognition of almost every demand but the key one – that of a united Ireland. The ‘no-state’ solution is simply not recognisable as the object of the prisoners’ struggle. As Bobby Sands’ sister Bernadette Sands-McKevitt put it, ‘Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers’. Neither is it recognisable as the object of the struggle of the wider republican movement, nor indeed that of the loyalists. This is not the ending anybody imagined at the time. But does this really make that time unimaginable from now? As Vikki Bell notes in her study of the Civic Forum, there the past and its politics must be dealt with carefully to prevent a collapse of civil society back into sectarianism. The peace remains haunted.

There can be few who actively want to bring back ‘the troubles’ – so what is it McQueen wants to bring back?