Growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, film was like Valium to me. But Steve McQueen's Hunger is anti-Valium cinemaby Mark Cousins / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
I grew up in Northern Ireland and was 16 when hunger striker Bobby Sands first refused food. His action electrified Belfast’s Catholic enclaves like the Falls Road, where my mum grew up and my granny and uncle lived. I remember the frozen spine of the streets on those days. The warmth of my granny’s welcome, her homemade soup, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks on the telly are sutured in my memory to the sound of women banging bin lids on the streets in protest. This was our ululation, our way of piercing the air.
Bin lids, whispers that the “Shankill butchers” pushed out the eyes of their victims and stuck rosary beads into the sockets, fear of the feral aggression of parts of the IRA: these things came flooding back when I read Susan McKay’s brilliant new book of interviews with those touched by the war in Ireland, Bear in Mind These Dead. I loved its even-handedness (my dad was a Prod). I remembered when I first moved to Scotland: being on Stirling University’s leafy campus at night, walking past a parked car. I became convinced it contained a bomb—as kids we were told to stay well away from parked cars. Blood rushed to my head. I imagined the car exploding beside me, my arms blown off and my chest pierced by shrapnel. I thought I was going to faint. I started to cry.
Imagery was part of the problem of such panic attacks—I’d seen loads of car bombs on the news—but also part of the solution. As I’ve said before, cinema was like Valium for me during the war in Northern Ireland. It calmed my nervous system. I tended to body-swerve war movies—coals to Newcastle—but sought out almost every other genre. Then, in 1982, the year after the hunger strikes started, I saw Neil Jordan’s film Angel, which was set right in the world I knew, but was about the relationship between a saxophonist and a mute young girl. Here was my grey war married to jazzy, sensuous scenes of strange poetry and pink lighting. I loved it. It remains the first great film about the Troubles. Seven years later, Alan Clarke made the almost wordless featurette, Elephant, which rigorously followed gunmen as they travelled to kill. Clarke had excised everything good about Northern Ireland—the homemade soup, as it were—except the shooting. He rubbed our nose in our own…