The philosophy of film is the first and most natural step to the understanding of it. It is an unconscious response to viewing and is therefore overlooked by many film theorists. Daniel Shaw, in his book Film and Philosophy, Taking Movies Seriously, poses the most fundamental question – “What distinguishes philosophy of film from the enterprise of film theory, which has a long and distinguished history?” Indeed, what does it mean to talk about a film philosophically, as opposed to a psychological or sociological approach for example? Phenomenology asks to start with the film and the experience of it. In this essay, I will attempt to demonstrate how phenomenology, when applied to the 2008 film Hunger, brings out an understanding of the film different and perhaps more effective than if it were to be viewed from other structured and established film theories.

But before we can apply phenomenology to Hunger, we must understand what phenomenology really is. Daniel Frampton describes in his book Filmosophy, “Phenomenology is the philosophy of experience – the study of consciousness and the phenomena (objects/appearance) of direct experience. That is, it attempts to describe our experience of things (the appearance of things to us), marking out phenomenal states – also known as sensations, sense data or qualia.” According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology “tries to give a direct description of our experience as it is, without taking account of its psychological origins and the causal explanations which the scientist, the historian or the sociologist may be able to provide.” Hunger portrays life in the Maze Prison, Northern Ireland and the 1981 IRA hunger strike led by Bobby Sands. Indeed, Director Steve McQueen does not talk about WHY the events in the film took place. He is not interested in the history behind his story or in the semantics of it. He simply wants the viewer to experience the experience.

Vivian Sobchack states in New Takes in Film Philosophy that “…the cinema made the dynamic action of vision visible for the very first time: choosing its objects as it prospects the world, displacing itself in space, time, and reflection, and always engaged in making meaning. Cinema thus makes the phenomenological concept of ‘intentionality’ explicit; it becomes sensible as a materially-embodied and actively-directed structure through which meaning is constituted in an on-going sensual reflexive, and reflective process that, entailed with the world and others, is always creating its own provisional history or narrative of becoming. In effect, the cinema enacts what is also being enacted by its viewer.” There is a double intentionality in Hunger – our perception of the film and the film’s perception of its world.

As Frampton puts is, “Film has a body which drives and steers its representations.” We cannot see thought, only a representation of it. These representations can be shown through many effects. The most common is speech. Steve McQueen however, represents it through action. The prisoners barely speak to each other, but we can grasp what they think by what they see, what they touch and how they react to their surroundings. The few times that there have been attempts at conversation between prisoners Gillen and Gerry, there is a gap in communication because one does not understand the other’s gaelic. You see what they want, desire, or think entirely via their body language. The splattering of excrement on the prison walls is a representation of their rebellion. Steve McQueen’s style of direction evokes an opinion from the viewer. Unlike most movies however, this opinion arises out of the most natural reactions of the body to the starvation, deterioration of the body and brutality seen on the screen. Sobchack states that “ […] the film experience is a system of communication based on bodily perception as a vehicle of conscious expression.” What we see, we perceive as a sense of touch. The idea that the eye acts as a sense of touch is demonstrated time and again by the imagery in Hunger. The deterioration of Bobby Sands’ body is shown in great detail. And while we may cringe at the images, we also find ourselves empathising. This empathy comes from a level of shared experience. Through what is shown to us, we (to some degree) go through that pain as well. Noel Carrol, a connoisseur of films in the horror genre discusses the paradox regarding the viewer’s emotional engagement with horror films. There is at the same time, revulsion and a pleasurable fascination felt by the viewer. Why does this happen? Carrol states that even though there are conflicting emotional responses from the viewer, it is not really a paradox. The disgust and revulsion felt is the price the viewer must pay for the pleasures provided by the horror film narrative. Hunger, though not a horror film, definitely falls into the body genre film. We cringe in disgust when we see the violence and brutality and even at the revolting forms of protest by the prisoners. Yet there is a morbid fascination to see more, or at least to see it through to the end.

The film uses many techniques to glean this kind of bodily response from the viewer. Sound for example, plays a big role. Many viewers forget that the film experience is an audio-visual one, and concentrate mostly on the visual. Hunger forces you to apply the sense of hearing right from the beginning. The film starts with a drumming sound that gets louder and finally we can see that it is the sound of dustbin lids being banged on the streets, a sign of protest. This immediately throws you into the midst of what the movie is actually about. The prison guard is shown, dipping his hands in water, breathing loudly in what seems like pain. This scene with the wash basin is repeated many times in the first half of the movie, his breathing getting more violent and pained as the bruises on his knuckles get more severe. This small dose of violence is a precursor to the police brutality that you witness later on. The protest is demonstrated through sound as well – the sound of excrement being splattered on the wall, the sound of urine being poured out of the prison cells out onto the corridor, the banging and smashing of chairs by the prisoners when they are forced to wear garish and even clownish civilian clothes, the sound of anguish in their voices as they scream – all of it is done without much dialogue and the viewer feels it at a bodily level. There is a scene depicting the cleaning up of the corridor by the prison guard. Curiously enough Steve McQueen shows the entire tedious process. What begins with disgust from the viewer as the sound of the urine splashing about when cleaned, turns into a feeling of a small sense of satisfaction as you realize the prisoners have won this small battle of protest. By showing the entire process, the viewer realises the revolting task the prison guards must have to undertake on a daily basis. A similar feeling is experienced when one of the prison guards with full protective gear and equipment is sent in to wash the excrement off the walls of the prison cell. It is the first time the full extent of this protest hits the viewer, as the protective gear worn by the guard indicates the smelly conditions the prisoners have created and lived in. When first we see the prison, we are repulsed by the condition of the cell. But it is on a somewhat superficial level since we see the prisoners living in it seemingly comfortably. It is only when we see the guard enter that we realize what the prisoners have put up with and the intensity of their protest deepens in our minds. The eye thus also acts as a sense of smell.

Hunger uses shock to intensify the viewer’s experience. In the beginning you see the prison guard go through his daily routine, from home to work, checking his car for bombs and the street for any signs of threat to his life. There is thus a foreboding sense of imminent danger. However, nothing happens. When he visits his mother, flowers in his hand, at his most human state, in a quiet home for the elderly, a paramilitary walks in and shoots him in the head and his lifeless body slumps into his mother’s lap. This seemingly quiet and uneventful scene that turns quickly into a crime scene with the sound of a gunshot, shocks the audience and in a sense wakes them up from any monotony that might be felt. It reels you in completely and you are now suddenly and extremely aware of the film surroundings.

The movement in the film is slow and deliberate, and is mostly shot by a single camera movement. This gives a feeling of being physically present in the midst of the action. There are no quick cuts or flashbacks. There is much to to say about the dialogue in the film, or the lack thereof. Steve McQueen chooses to stay away from verbal interaction between the characters. For the first half of the film, the only speech we hear is by way of radio announcements or basic exchange of words between prisoners. In fact when Davey Gillen, a new IRA prisoner enters his cell and meets his cellmate Gerry, he cannot understand his gaelic. But this is not to say that the viewer is left clueless. Right in the middle of this imagery is a long dialogue between Bobby Sands and Father Dom. This lengthy conversation between the two explains much of what has already happened and what is about to happen. The importance of this dialogue lies in the fact that without it, the viewer can never come to terms with the bodily harm that Sands will soon inflict on himself. Such an act can only make sense if you understand and feel the passion behind it. Sands’ belief in the cause for a united Ireland is verbally fleshed out in this scene as he explains to Father Dom why or how he can put himself and his fellow men through so much pain. It is important to note here that McQueen did not use close-up shots during the conversation. The camera is set at least a table away and the silhouettes of the two men along with the cigarette smoke in the air is all that we see. This setting pulls your attention to the body language of the two men. Sands is leaning forward and is determined and talking passionately about the cause, while Father Dom tries to reason with him and tries to convince him to negotiate in peace. When Sands speaks of the hunger strike that he has organised, attention to his body is immediate. As you see his torso breathe in and out the cigarette smoke, you wonder how much more his body will weaken.

With the exception just mentioned, there is a lot of use of close-up shots to give you a sense of a more realistic experience of the film. There is constant emphasis on the knuckles of the main prison guard, under various circumstances. It is highlighted as he does various activities during the day like eating, smoking outside and opening his locker with his keys. The wounds give an indication of what his day must be like. The film thus becomes a space and we start filling it with our consciousness. We do this by reacting to what is presented, thereby giving it meaning. The film is therefore an object. But it is also the subject, in that it invites us to experience the experience. Phenomenology is about consciousness and the body and its physical responses. The film both represents and presents. Phenomenology is the bridge between the film and what it is being and the spectator and how he is viewing. We see what the film is showing at a bodily level. We hold knowledge in our bodies and memories in our senses. We bring this all when viewing a film. When we see the prisoners bleeding, we can feel it because we know what that kind of pain feels like and we can remember it. When we see Sands being beaten up and his hair cut, body bruised and forced into the tub, we cringe because we can almost feel it burn or sting as the water touches his wounds. The scenes that show Bobby Sands’ starved body are horrific. The sores on his body and the stained bedsheets are signs of his physical deterioration. But the pain intensifies when you see the trays of food brought to him and taken away untouched. Why is it that this scene has a deeper impact? We see him almost cut to the bone, we hear the doctor explaining his physical breakdown and we know it is because of starvation. But it is only when we see him actually resist the temptation of food do we realize his will power and the torture he puts himself through becomes more real and more powerful. The sores are simply a physical manifestation of a bigger, mental trauma that he puts himself through.

Throughout the film, there is constant imagery that triggers the imagination or a thought process. The prison guard’s keychain with the British flag on it for example, is a symbol of british oppression. The wash basin where the guard washes soaks his bruised knuckles is a powerful image. He wears it like a uniform and regularly beats up prisoners as if it were a part of his duties. The walls of the cell are regularly caked with faeces as a symbol of protest by the prisoners. The weakening and dying body is the ultimate symbol of rebellion. When words fail, they resort to using their bodies to carry their message. And the weaker the body gets, the louder and more powerful their message becomes. It is ironic to note that the only substantial piece of dialogue is about Bobby Sands refusing to get into any kind of dialogue with the government. He talks about how talking is not going to get them anywhere. In a scene where Sands is in the bathtub, the regular orderly is replaced by a new orderly who sits on the chair and shows Sands his knuckles, tattooed with UDA ( Ulster Defence Association). Sands, in an attempt at defiance struggles to stand up on his own while the orderly simply stares at him and doesn’t offer any help. It is only when he faints and falls to the ground that the orderly picks him up and carries him out, almost as if to demonstrate his strength by carrying the “dead weight” that the republican movement had become.

According to Daniel Frampton in his book Filmosophy, “Phenomenology reveals how, in ‘thinking’ the object before us, we in some sense own them – as Merleau-Ponty writes: ‘To see is to have at a distance.’ When we see an object, we take that object and make it our own. This ‘strange possession’ of the world, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, mirrors film’s possession of its characters and settings. For Merleau-Ponty this is why philosophy is suited to film – because philosophy consists in ‘describing the mingling of consciousness with the world, its involvement in a body, and its coexistance with others; and because this is movie material par excellence‘. The film’s attention/intention mingles with the objects we recognise, making new ‘intended-objects’ (thought things) – film shows us the expression of mind in the world.” Film actions are similar to the actions that our body performs. But not only does it act like a mind, it also has the ability to show mental states. Sands’ deterioration of the mind and body in the last few scenes are felt by the viewer at a bodily level. We get a sense of his deafness and weak eyesight by the lack of audio and blurry vision. In his final moments, we see his mental state through a flashback in which his younger self is running through the woods. As the boy turns around, he sees no one behind him. Could it be that in his last moments, he wonders if his efforts were in vain? Sobchack notes that “[…] direct experience and existential presence in the cinema belong to both the film and the viewer.” The viewer’s body is not just a passive instrument recording the events of the film, but gets directly involved in the process. Similarly, the film is not simply a screen filled with images and sounds, it is a thinking body and the viewer gives meaning to the objects presented to it. Cinema is thus as much about the response of the viewer as it is about the actual viewing.

The importance of phenomenology as an approach to films and its constantly understated nature is aptly highlighted in Sobchack’s Senses of Cinema – “Nearly every time I read a movie review in a newspaper or popular magazine, I am struck once again by the gap that exists between our actual experience of the cinema and the theory that we academic film scholars write to explain it–or, perhaps more aptly, to explain it away.” A complete viewing of Hunger leaves you physically and mentally drained as you have invested in the film almost as much as the film has invested in itself. That a film can leave such an impression on the viewer or trigger any kind of thought process, that it can leave you feeling differently than when you entered the cinema, is the kind of film experience that film phenomenologists point out is vital to the understanding of cinema. And while many film theorists argue and contest cinema’s ability to make thoughts visible, Parker Tyler in 1972 wrote that “The whole film strip and its revolving images are simply an embodiment of the way the mind works…the closest we can come to the world’s naked presence through a medium, till perchance a machine be invented to record the image-by-image processes of the brain.”


Carel, Havi and Greg Tuck, New Takes in Film-Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Frampton, Daniel, Filmosophy (London: Wallflower Press, 2006), Part One

Shaw, Daniel, Film and Philosophy – Taking Movies Seriously (London: Wallflower Press, 2008)

Sobchack, Vivian, Senses of Cinema (2000)

Sobchack, Vivian, The Address Of The Eye: A Phenomenology Of Film Experience (Princeton University Press, 1992)

5 thoughts on “Phenomenology in Steve McQueen’s 2008 film- Hunger

  1. Thanks for this insightful article. The challenge of screenwriting and filmmaking is of course, “to make thoughts visible”… and audible, as you’ve also shown. I’m learning to do that as I’m writing my first screenplay at the moment. Thank you for stopping by Ripple Effects and leaving your comment. I look forward to more dialogues in the future.

    • Good luck with the screenplay! It’s always good to converse with someone just as passionate about film as I am. Although, I have a lot more films on my bucket list to tick off! Cheers.

  2. Great essay Nandini. Your detail is very good on the possibilities of what may or may not be happening for the characters as objects. I will be writing an essay on this soon for a up and coming blog at the university of Exeter and will let you know when I do so. Thanks for sharing as I was able to incorporate some of your ideas into a recent presentation that I did as a film student. Clifford.

  3. ps. I would also be interested in how you researched this essay as it is quite detailed and correct. I am from Belfast and lived through this period in my life and I am impressed by your research. Can I friend request you on Facebook,If you do not want to discuss it here?

Empty box? Fill it up!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s