When he was 11, living with his mother in a West London flat, Steve McQueen saw the images on the TV news. There was the photograph of Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands, and there was the number at the bottom of the screen. And every evening, the number would rise by one.
The newscasts were tallying the days of Sands’ hunger strike inside Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in the spring of 1981. It lasted for 66.
Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Helena Bereen, Larry Cowan, Liam Cunningham, Dennis McCambridge, Liam McMahon
(IFC Films; US theatrical: 20 Mar 2009 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 31 Oct 2008 (General release); 2007)
“Hunger” won the Camera d’Or, the prize for a first-time director, at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. In the picture, McQueen recreates the events and conditions - almost surreal in their horror - inside the prison.
With an unnerving and physically daunting performance by Michael Fassbender as Sands, the film represents McQueen’s effort to address a moment in the United Kingdom’s history that was, he says, “swept under the carpet” for more than a quarter-century.
“As the numbers went up, I started to get curious and asked my mother, what is this?” says McQueen, on the phone from his home in Amsterdam (he lives there and in London), recalling those TV images. “The whole idea that in order to be heard, someone would stop eating, was, for an 11-year-old, something that you can’t wrap your head around, really.
“I suppose what happened was that I sort of equated it to myself being a child, of course, and ... everyone knows this image of a child sitting down in front of a plate of food and the parents saying to the child, ‘You’re not leaving this table until you finish this food!’ and the child refusing to eat.
“So, in some ways, that’s how the relationship was formed, that was the trigger ... And, of course, as you get older you find out a little bit about the context behind it all.”
McQueen, 39, a Londoner of Afro-Caribbean descent, is best known as a visual artist whose minimalist black-and-white films have won the Turner Prize, Britain’s top art award. He also has worked with photography and sculpture. Hunger is his first feature-length narrative piece.
“I don’t really see the difference, to a certain extent, as far as narrative versus ‘art’ stuff,” he says, his speech fast and clipped. “It’s the same thing as far as I’m concerned. I mean, John Ford is as good an artist as Salvador Dali or whoever ... It’s just that the subject matter, in some ways, demanded that it be narrative. That was it, really.”
Originally, McQueen’s plan was to shoot inside the actual H-Block section of Maze where Sands and his fellow IRA prisoners staged their protests - refusing clothing, refusing to wash, and then, finally, refusing to eat. But the film production’s request was denied, so McQueen and his set designer re-created on a soundstage the “prison within a prison within a prison” layout.
“We built it exactly to the specifications of the actual H-block, so there were no breakaway walls. We had to maneuver ourselves within the space with the cameras ... What was fascinating to me was the contrast between the chaos inside the prisoners’ cells, and outside the cells where there was this sort of formal construction, this regimentation and order.”
McQueen’s plan was to capture the experience of being in the prison for both the prisoners and the officers who watched over them.
“We read and researched before going to Northern Ireland,” he recalls. And then he and his cowriter, Enda Walsh, went to talk to the survivors of the hunger strike, “and also former prison officers and priests that were involved at the time, and, obviously, ex-prisoners. That was very important ... to get all that information in order for us to have that kind of intimacy and detail. Because I was interested in the information in between the words, the texts, the books, the documents ... And you can only get that from a conversation. From asking what was it like, being half-naked in the winter in your cell?
“What was it like waking up with maggots over your body? What was it like in the summer when the maggots turned into bluebottles? When do you get used to the feces on the wall? Those kind of questions, for me, were vital.”
McQueen’s film doesn’t set out to portray Sands as a martyr or a hero. Instead, the filmmaker wanted to show how one’s convictions - right or wrong - can lead to acts of extreme physical and psychic sacrifice.
“It was important to me that the events are shown from the perspective of prisoners and prison officers alike,” he says. “My intention was to provoke debate in the audience, to challenge our own ideas of morality. . . .
“That’s the whole idea of making the movie, that people have to look at this part of history, like looking into a mirror. . . . The people on screen are not aliens, they’re not freaks, they’re part of us.”