Film: The Culture in Conflict Season in Luton

Film: The Culture in Conflict Season in Luton

“I wanted to show what it is to die for a cause,” is how the exceptional Steve McQueen describes his brutal movie Hunger, first seen in 2008.

Anyone who’s seen it recalls its eye-scorching illustration of the IRA Hunger Strike in 1981, and the ultimate demise of its leader Bobby Sands.

It recently screened as part of the Culture in Conflict film season at Luton’s Hat Factory, and its power is not diminished.

The Hat Factory is an impressive culture and media centre set in Luton’s old industrial area. The five-storey building was originally named the Connor Hat Factory, a reference to the Connor family business.

In the past it was also owned by firms named Jameson and Higgins, a strong indication of Irish involvement in Luton’s millinery tradition.

In the 1990s the site was refashioned as a cultural venue, which thrives today despite austerity cuts.

The idea of showing movies covering ‘cultures in conflict’ is the brainchild of Jim Hornsby and Fahim Qureshi, who both work closely in conjunction with the Hat Factory.

“It began one day with an idle chat over coffee,” Hornsby explains. “Fahim jumped at the idea because he’s aware of the growing concern over Islamist radicalisation in Luton.”

They secured funding through the Film Audience Network, a BFI initiative that promotes non-mainstream movie screenings.

The purpose, as Hornsby and Qureshi see it, is to appeal to Asian, Afghan, Irish and British audiences. There is a productive element, too, with local sixth-form media students making their own films about their experiences of cultural antagonisms and thoughts on resolution.

Besides its Irish contingent, Luton has a large Muslim population. Of the four films screened during the Culture in Conflict season, three evoke the tensions between Muslim and Western traditions.

But the inclusion of McQueen’s Hunger is most intriguing because its depiction of past hostilities reflects so well on present concerns. A sense of alienation in one’s own back yard certainly echoes between todays disaffected Muslims, and Irish Catholics and nationalists in the past.

All the films shown in the season express how thoughts of isolation can evolve into extremist action.

The most mainstream picture included is Mira Nair’s often overlooked The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), which features Kiefer Sutherland and Kate Hudson, and sees Riz Ahmed as a Pakistani financier working for a high-end Wall Street outfit.

His American dream becomes a nightmare when he’s inadvertently embroiled in a kidnapping case, making him a target for the US security services.

Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2002) is a naturalistic docu-drama that follows a young Afghan boy’s disorientating odyssey from Peshawar to Kilburn High Road (of all places).

Among all the films shown the one that reflects the deepest resilience is Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s Five Broken Cameras (2011). It’s a stark observational documentary shot within a small Palestinian village, where the occupying Israeli forces daily harass and bully the locals.

Burnat began using his camera as a hobby but refocused his attention on recording everyday life among his people. The title refers to the cameras that were destroyed, either by accident or deliberate vandalism, in capturing the claustrophobic confines of Palestine.

All four films screened in the season expose the perception of disenchantment and disillusion.

Such feelings do often, though not always, lead to the kind of demented, dissonant reasoning that fires those engaged in depraved violence.

This is viscerally displayed in Hunger, where all those involved (Maze prisoners and prison officers alike) have been brutalised beyond humanity. There’s barely any talking and the narrative contains almost no dialogue, just a cacophony of discordant noise.

What talk there is comes crammed in the extraordinary 23-minute scene between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and his priest Father Moran (Liam Cunningham).

“It’s a philosophical chess game,” McQueen says, in which Sands determines to starve to death and Moran is appalled by his unwavering resolve.

The viewer could see Sands as either courageous or conceited: “Are you lookin’ for martyrdom, Bobby?” He might be viewed as either heroic or narcissistic: “I can take the pain for all the boys.” The ambiguity in Enda Walsh’s unsettling script is unmissable.

Hunger is the one movie in the Culture in Conflict line-up to cover a conflict that’s been resolved (albeit shakily).

Sands were elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone during his final days. This opened the door to a political dimension, eventually leading to political discussion. Though Anglo-Irish relations reached their deepest nadir during the hunger strikes, arguably they planted the seeds of a settlement.

Sands famously avowed that “everyone, Republican or otherwise, will have their own particular part to play.” Perhaps.

Certainly the film that portrays Sands’ horrific death can meaningfully play its part in illuminating conflict both in Ireland and elsewhere.

Hunger is available on DVD. The Culture in Conflict season continues at the Hat Factory, Luton, until March 17.