Steve McQueen’s debut feature has rightly been described as brutal, visceral filmmaking. It’s an incredible experience in the cinema, visually and aurally, that does leave you shaken with the power of the images it has shown you, and the ideas that underpin them. The film blends a broad narrative arc, with more experimental styles that make it recognisable as an art, or avant-garde, film. It begins with a wordless montage of the life of one of the prison guards. Without giving away the details, there is an emotive juxtaposition of the banal and the extreme in this daily routine – and the sense of a man barely containing his emotions and the stress under the brutality he is part of, is powerfully conveyed. I want to say that here, as elsewhere, the emotions assault you such that you begin to experience that fear and tension, despite a recognition that this is at odds with the controlled, fluent sequence and its attention to cinematographic detail and controlled compositions. You are never in doubt that there is a guiding artist behind the scenes presented to you; an artist who knows how to create visual beauty, which you feel and respond to, at the same time as you are repelled or horrified by what is actually happening in the filmed sequence.
As we are taken into the cells with Davey, the new arrival, the expressionistic camerawork allows us the sensation of the degradation and horror of those living conditions – the rotting food, occupied by tiny grubs, the swirls of excrement on the walls. Time and again, McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, create a focal point using a vivid colour within the frame – arresting and attracting your eye, and engaging you with the dialectical argument, simply through the aesthetic affect. The moment where the prisoners are given ‘joke’ Irish clothing to wear as civilian clothes (accompanied by the sniggers of their guards), its bright, jaunty patterns are a visual explanation for the fury of the inmates. With all the brutal violence that is, unflinchingly, shown on screen, it is these daily, petty inhumanities that are, convincingly, as inhumane. The film makes you experience the inhumanity generated person to person by an inanimate political system. Without any particular narrative or dialogue to emphasise it, McQueen (and his collaborators including writer Enda Walsh) demonstrate the futility of violence and opposition on both sides, which only serves to degrade those involved.
I don’t believe it is a film that seeks to impose a viewpoint or an ideology on its viewer. I don’t think it is a film that would, or tries to, change your viewpoint of those times. Terrorists, freedom fighters, political prisoners or murdering criminals? These terms are not (apparently) much debated and extended. The central meeting between Sands and Father Moran lays out the arguments for and against the self-sacrifice of a hunger protest for a belief, not the beliefs themselves. The balance of representation is only adjusted (I felt) by what I took to be the import of their use of Thatcher’s speech on pity – attacking the hunger strikers for being willing to use pity to advance their agenda. This acts as an introduction to Sands’ slow and horrific death – and through this section of the film, the intense focus on the wasting of his body and terrible sores and lesions that afflict gives us nothing but pity as a way out. All we can do is relate on a human level to this one man. Even where we might be antipathetic to his beliefs, his extremism, we do not have to sacrifice our human pity. That is still within our choice. Now, here, McQueen does seem to lean towards a sympathetic portrait – in a flashback, we see the intensity of the young Sands on an outing he has previously described. Running through the cornfields, the beautiful image is invested with portent; we know (from his tale to the priest) that even at eight, Sands is being taught a political lesson in this moment of freedom, which will end in a political act of knowing self-sacrifice.
The fact that we understand this, as we watch the young boy lean against the bus window, is intensely powerful. His life has been invested with a certain knowledge far earlier than others, that will inevitably, almost without his own will, shape it forever. This seems a tragedy – never to have known what freedom is, to experience knowledge that this is not your path.
The images used here – the point of view from Sands’ hospital bed, the shots of the Donegal countryside drive us to experience these feelings for ourselves. The film’s tour-de-force, however, is a single take (apparently 16 minutes long), which dominates the scene between Sands and Father Dom (Liam Cunningham). The balanced debate moves from lively, intellectually nimble banter to emotional expressions of different ideologies. The camera keeps a fixed distance, not too close or favouring either side in its composition. Again, you can find your own access points and sympathies between these two illuminated figures. Emotionally strong, conventions of filmmaking are broken again by creating a theatrical performance at the centre of a cinematic experience, which we experience as if we are in a theatre. The intensity of the static camera translates to an intensity of focus for us.
The film knows how to use dialogue and debate here, but it also uses silence very effectively. Silence seems to allow you to watch and understand. The movement between over-exposure to sound (in some of the violence) and to silence added to the emotional impact.
The rustling of sweet wrappers (unbelievable!) stopped, anyway, very quickly. People did leave the cinema. I honestly wasn’t sure why they went, as it felt it could have been just as much the emotional intensity as the violence. Whatever your feelings about the subject matter, it’s filmmaking that demands to be seen.