Hunger Strikes as a Strategy for Political Protest
The first event for Portsmouth’s contribution to the Being Human Festival, centred on the screening of Steve McQueen’s Hunger (McQueen, 2008), a film which details the 1981 hunger strike of Bobby Sands, and acts as the perfect backdrop to discuss the festival’s most pressing concern, what is it to be human, a screening supported by Film Hub South East. Supported by a series of short papers and a closing panel discussion which will link the Irish hunger strikes to those of the Suffragettes, the well-attended event provided a detailed overview of the relationship between personal suffrage and political protest.
The event opened with a paper by Dr Graham Spencer, Reader in Politics, Conflict and Media at the University of Portsmouth, whose two forthcoming books, entitled The British and peace in Northern Ireland and From Arms Struggle to political struggle: Republication tradition and transformation in Northern Ireland position his as a leader in the field of British/Irish relations. Spencer’s talk foregrounded the modes of suffering and endurance that rests at the heart of hunger strikes; notions that McQueen’s film echoes through its long patient shots and the physical transformation of its star Michael Fassbinder. Fassbinder plays Sands, who, through his martyrdom has, as Spencer suggested, gained a heroic stature. Spencer further noted that Sands, who died before seeing the change he desired, felt his death was needed to expose the inhumanity of the systems controlling Britain at the time. Drawing neat parallels to religious Catholic iconography and belief systems, Spencer’s talk provided a context of self-suffering intrinsic to the IRA hunger strikers.
McQueen’s film worked to visualise the prevailing threads of Spencer’s opening talk, as Fassbinder’s own suffering played out within the slow paced, poetic narrative, one which has come to define the cinema of McQueen. After the closing credits, Thomas Hennessey, Professor of Modern British and Irish History at Canterbury Christ Church University, further positioned the images seen in McQueen’s film within its political history. Building upon Spencer’s discussion of suffering, Hennessey extended the discussion of this mode of martyrdom as a political movement. Considering the rights that the Irish prisoners of Hunger were fighting for, Hennessey outlined their desire to be given a political status and approached as prisoners of war rather than criminals. Here, the ‘Blanket’ and ‘No Wash’ protests that preceded Sands hunger strike within McQueen’s film found a useful contextual background, and filled in the gaps for those not familiar with the details of this period of conflict. Hennessey’s talk fascinatingly fleshed out this contextual background, using primary documents and messages sent between the various parties involved to map the stubbornness of the Irish prisoners, Sinn Fein and Margret Thatcher. It was through Hennessey’s detailed exploration that we could place McQueen’s personal, cinematically precise, examination of Sands within a broader history of political struggle.
After a short break Beverly Cook, curator of the Suffragette Collection at the Museum of London, and Emeritus Professor of Women’s and Gender History at the University of Portsmouth June Purvis widened the scope of hunger strikes as a form of political protest through an exploration of the Suffragettes. Cook’s talk about Suffragette hunger strikes played over a montage of images of female prisoners taking forced exercise. These images, as Cook discussed, showed the pain of real hunger strikes, and provided essential insights into the often closed space of protests which occur behind bars. Usefully, these images supported McQueen’s fictional representations, and painted a more comprehensive picture of the impact political beliefs can have on the human form. Purvis’s short paper furthered these points of discussion, yet looked at a different area of the way consumption informs political processes. Purvis discussed forced feeding, which to many in attendance, seemed to epitomise the notions of suffering that had been discussed throughout the evening. Describing the act as a form of instrumental rape, Purvis’s examination of the process was neatly supported by troubling comic strip images which, through their jovial depiction of the horrific act, further exposed the extreme patriarchy of the era.
Cook and Purvis exposed a relationship between the acts of the Suffragettes and those of the Irish prisoners, and usefully provided both a greater sense of the importance of hunger strikes as a mode of protest, and the intense personal suffrage that lies at the centre of the act. Importantly, these relationships were furthered by the concluding panel discussion, chaired by Dr Steven O’Brien, as the experts discussed the causes similarities and differences. While all discussions at this stage were interesting, and furthered the general context in which these individual stories could be situated, the closing question has stuck with me. Asked by the curator of the Portsmouth events, Dr Deborah Shaw, Associate Dean (Research) at the University of Portsmouth, the question inquired whether we can view McQueen’s Hunger as a political comment or an artistic exercise. Hennessey, to whom the question was directed, claimed that the film, like so many based on true stories, takes liberties with the material (for example, Hennessey suggests that there is no evidence that Sands was beaten) and therefore it does not quite stand up as a political text. I however, following the series of discusses provided throughout the well-attended evening, would argue that it can be both. Whilst not politically factual, and certainly artistically beautiful (in its own sterile and sparse way), the film draws attention to an era of conflict defined by personal suffering, and uncovers the extreme lengths people will go to fight their cause. In this sense, the film is, political, as it actively draws attention to ideologies that exist outside of the dominant discourse. In a more general sense, the film, and the evening as whole, helped us define what it is to be human: conflict, belief, sacrifice and suffering – messages that need an audience.
Simon Hobbs has just completed his PhD, entitled Extreme Art Cinema: Text, Paratext and Industry, and is a lecturer in Film and Media at the University of Portsmouth. All photographs on this page are copyright of Alan Grant.
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