When I saw The Order of Myths earlier this year, I was surprised to find that such a public display of race division was still alive and accepted in the US. It’s not to say that I live in an ideal world where racism doesn’t exist but it’s usually a topic that hides behind closed doors, which people discuss in hushed whispers and (mostly) deny in public.
Margaret Brown’s documentary about Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama was an eye opener. A celebration that predates the much more popular one in New Orleans’, things in Mobile are done a little differently with not one but two Mardi Gras parades and celebrations: one for the whites and one for African Americans. Though the individuals live, work and play together when it comes to celebrating Fat Tuesday, celebrations are segregated. There are two parades, two dances and two sets of Kings and Queens of Mardi Gras.
Brown’s documentary is a fascinating watch and though she is given access to the various groups involved in with the floats and organizing of events on both sides, no one really has an answer to why the celebration is still separate. The common answer is always “tradition” or “that’s how it’s always been done” but it makes you wonder why few people ask “When is enough enough? When do you fore go tradition?” And though Brown attempts to get some answers, she leaves the film open ended and rarely does racism rear its head although it’s always in the back of the mind and in full display on screen.
Basically, the last of the good. Click on the film’s title to jump directly to the review.
The list of “must sees” at this year’s VIFF was slightly longer than last year’s. As I discover more festivals and track more films, the list of those to keep on the to see pile seems to get longer and Steve McQueen’s Hunger had been on my list for a few months. A trailer which surfaced in May suggested that this was going to be spectacular and I’m thankful to report, the film does not disappoint but not in the way I originally anticipated.
Focusing specifically on Irish Republican Army volunteer Bobby Sands, the film retells the events of the 1981 hunger strike at HM Prison Maze in which Irish Republican prisoners sought to regain Special Category Status. From the opening credits, it’s clear that McQueen isn’t interested in holding back and we’re immediately painted a picture of the flyblown conditions. In the opening few minutes we see a very thin man cowering in a corner of a room with a small window; the walls covered in brown muck, garbage in the corner. A short time later it becomes clear that the brown muck on the walls is feces and that these men have put it there on purpose – their method of strike. It’s evident that this isn’t going to be an easy watch and with every passing minute it’s clear that this isn’t going to end well, something which may not come as a surprise for those familiar with the strike but something which I wasn’t prepared for.
McQueen moves the story along at an intense pace and with every new scene we see more degradation. The conditions are unsanitary, the prisoners badly cared for and among all of this, we meet and see Sands in action. Regardless of political beliefs and affiliations, it’s clear to see why Sands garnered so much support among his brethren. In a brilliant 20 minute, single take conversation with Father Moran, we see the intensity of Sands’ belief and his dedication to “the cause”. Even those unfamiliar with the history and events that led to the hunger strike will quickly come to understand, however vaguely, the constant battle between the IRA and those who didn’t support the cause. Though McQueen gives us this great scene, the other 60 minutes of the film are an exercise in strength of stomach as the audience is subjected to scene after scene of physical abuse and squalor.
Although a harrowing to watch, there is much grace and power in McQueen’s film which interlaces moments of serenity and violence with ease, never letting go the audience’s attention. The intensity of the film is heightened by Michael Fassbender’s performance as Bobby Sands and though Fassbender plays Sands with seriousness and lucidity, I felt a sense of madness just beyond the surface and walking away, I was reminded of Michael Shannon’s brilliant performance in Bug.
Not an easy watch, one distraught woman attempted to leave the theatre 60 minutes in and didn’t quite make it (which added an additional layer to the already disturbing film), Hunger is none the less a film that deserves the big screen treatment for its gorgeously disturbing images and although it’s not recommended for those with weak stomachs, it’s a stunning first feature. McQueen is a director to watch.