Written and directed by Steve McQueen
Screening at from 14th November
Sands was an Irish Republican Army volunteer, joining at the age of just
eighteen in 1972, following years of attacks from loyalists. Upon his
second conviction for possession of firearms, he was sentenced to a fourteen
year stretch in the notorious Maze prison.
It is here that the film begins, though it is a while before Sands (played
by Michael Fassbender) makes an appearance. Instead, we see new IRA prisoner
Davey (Brian Milligan) arriving, and refusing to wear the uniform. For
this, he is labelled 'uncooperative'. As an otherwise naked Davey goes
'on the blanket', he is shown to his cell, which Gerry (Liam McMahon)
has smeared with shit from floor to ceiling. This is all a protest at
the officers' treatment of the prisoners, and especially the government's
removal of 'political status' from IRA inmates.
Aside from the cinematography - which is the work of a skilled artistic
eye - McQueen deserves much praise for his unflinching depiction of the
institutionalised brutality at the heart of a previous 'war on terror',
in a Lisburn Abu Ghraib overseen by the draconian but very plausible Ray
Lohan (Stuart Graham). We witness the systematic degradation of prisoners,
and gain some level of appreciation that they truly were living in a hell
on earth. This is important, at a time when the United Kingdom government
is deepening its attacks on 'democratic rights' which have long been taken
for granted by many people.
Ironically, problems with the film become clear when the Sands character
is introduced. From this point onwards, it is very much his story in isolation,
about his martyrdom, to the exclusion of everything else. In a twenty-plus
minute scene, featuring perhaps the longest single shot in cinema history,
McQueen has Sands tell a priest (Liam Cunningham) about his plans to die,
as part of a campaign for political status. After much backwards and forwards
banter between the two men, the priest gets down to brass tacks and asks
Sands why he wants to take this drastic step. The answer he gets is something
about fields of waving barley.
By setting the film almost entirely within the Maze, McQueen has neglected
almost everything that made Bobby Sands the person he was - someone willing
to die for a political cause he passionately believed in. Though biopics
are inevitably centred on one person, it is impossible to understand the
person in isolation, without looking at the social forces that shaped
that life, and the circumstances in which it is lived. From McQueen's
individualistic perspective, it looks as though the hunger strikers have
brought all their suffering upon themselves.
Similarly, as we watch Sands die in agony, little context is provided.
Although McQueen no doubt wanted his film to be inspiring, it is this
omission which makes it depressing. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking
the Thatcher government and the prison regime were all-powerful, as their
fervent opponent literally self-destructs. In real life, as the strikes
wore on and men started dying, massive public support put great pressure
on the already unpopular British state - which eventually conceded two
of the 'Five Demands' - and Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South
Tyrone on his prison death bed.
This was the beginning of the IRA's 'armalite and ballot box strategy',
which saw Sinn Féin become a force in electoral politics. Arguably,
what makes the death of self-described socialist Bobby Sands all the more
tragic is the sight of his former comrades administering capitalism in
the six counties of northern Ireland, alongside bigoted upholders of the