HUNGER CO-WRITER-DIRECTOR STEVE MCQUEEN. PHOTO BY: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
The hunger in the title of Steve McQueen‘s debut feature alludes to the 1981 hunger strike by Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands. McQueen‘s film, which won the Camera d‘Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, takes you deep inside the Maze prison outside of Belfast from the mid-‘70s to 1981 to dramatize the complex political maneuvering that drove Sands to starve himself to death in his fight against British domination. But McQueen‘s film, soon to be released by IFC, is far from a simple period drama. The director, who made his reputation as a visual artist working in the medium of film, attempts to create a cinematic experience that reaches far beyond the historic memory of that word “hunger” in order to express its brute reality.
Previously, when asked to describe his short documentary-like piece Carib‘s Leap, McQueen explained, “I want this movie to be like a smell.” In so much of the artist‘s work the sheer physicality of the body is represented in both stark and ambiguous ways. His 1993 nine-minute video Bear, for example, stages a powerful, physical encounter between two large, naked men (one of whom is McQueen), and while the film‘s smackdown reality is obvious, its final meaning is not. In Hunger, McQueen captures in painstaking detail the physicality of life within the prison walls (the stench, the maggots, the numbing cold), but the larger emotional hunger that fuels this tragedy remains purposefully enigmatic.
In 1976, at the height of “The Troubles” (as the English were fond of calling the conflict in Northern Ireland), the British government stripped away Special Category Status from IRA prisoners. Beginning in July 1972, Irish Republican inmates were recognized as prisoners of war. But after March 1976, this status was phased out and all such prisoners were classified as common criminals and housed in the “H-Blocks” section of the Maze prison. For IRA members, removing their military identity was itself an act of war, and it was greeted with their full opposition. For the next six years, prisoners engaged in a series of calculated acts of resistance. In the first campaign, the “blanket protests,” prisoners refused to wear anything but blankets until their special category status was reinstated. They followed this with the “dirty protest,” during which prisoners refused to wash or clean their cells, urinated into the hallways and smeared their shit on their cell walls. Campaign after campaign seemed to have little or no effect on the British government. In 1981, Bobby Sands began a second hunger strike. But unlike an earlier attempt, rather than the prisoners starving en masse, each prisoner would do it individually, and when he died, a new prisoner would start up. As Sands turned weaker and more emaciated, he grew in the public imagination. A month into his hunger strike, he was elected as a Member of Parliament. His gaunt face appeared regularly on the nightly news, and his physical decline made front-page headlines. Sixty-six days after he started, Sands died, only to be followed by nine other prisoners who subsequently also died before the movement came to an end.
For McQueen, who grew up in England, Sands was an enigma. “Aged 11 or 12, there were three things that influenced me,” he explained. “The Brixton Riots, Tottenham winning the FA cup — which was fantastic — and Bobby Sands. His image appeared on the TV screen every night with a number underneath it.”
Turning to art in college, McQueen quickly became one of Britain‘s most celebrated visual artists, receiving the Turner Prize in 1999 and an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2002. In 2003, he was made the Official War Artist to Iraq by the Imperial War Museum. But McQueen reserved that image of Bobby Sands for cinema.
When Jan Younghusband of Britain‘s Channel 4 approached McQueen at the start of 2003 about making a feature, he immediately knew it would be about Bobby Sands. For the next few years he immersed himself in research, talking to everyone he could from that period, visiting and revisiting Northern Ireland with the playwright Enda Walsh, who had been contracted to help write the script. Originally he envisioned the film as completely silent, but over time he recognized the necessity of language. Walsh became essential in scripting the 22-minute single-take conversation/debate between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest, Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), which makes up the middle of the film.
While faithful to the historical details, McQueen‘s film follows its own narrative path. Rather than three dramatic acts, Hunger has something more akin to musical movements. The first introduces us to a succession of minor characters until we arrive at the character of Bobby Sands, already in prison. In this nearly silent, almost experimental section, the film feels out the space and conditions of prison life. The second is an extended dialogue between Sands and Moran about the ethics of his impending hunger strike. The third section is a lyric journey into Sands‘s psyche as he slowly fades from this world.
MICHAEL FASSBENDER (LEFT) AND LIAM CUNNINGHAM IN HUNGER. PHOTO COURTESY OF: BLAST! FILMS - HUNGER LTD.
Toward the end of the story we hear the voice of Margaret Thatcher over the radio denouncing the hunger strikes. It reminded me of a recent statement by the commander of the Joint Task Force in Guantánamo, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, about the people who committed suicide in prison there: “I believe this was not an act of desperation but rather an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” The parallels between the story told in your film and Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo seem hard to miss. Yes, but we started the film before there was an Iraq or Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo. You have to focus on what you are focusing on. I was looking at what was happening 27 years ago, and that was far more important, far more interesting to me. In the process, if there is a comparison to what is happening now, great. But that was not my prime motive.
While this is your first feature film, you‘ve made many short works, primarily for gallery spaces. Had this originally been a short film or had you always thought of this as a feature? No, this was always a feature film. I knew what I wanted to do for a while, so when Channel 4 approached me, I had the idea ready. I told them, and they didn‘t blink.
How did you work with Enda Walsh to flesh out or formulate the narrative? First, no one formulated or fleshed it out. This was an organic process. The film came through research. It was never “this is what I want to do and this is how I want to do it.” The process is all about the content and how that forms and informs the movie. It was five years of bloody research before we even started rolling the bloody camera.
Can you talk about that creative process? We did all the interviews and then things came about, like texture and smell, and ritual and sound. That is how I work — allowing it to happen rather than oozing my ideas onto the situation.
The centerpiece of the film is a 22-minute single-take explosion of dialogue. How did this come about? The whole film is all about taking in everything until it becomes distorted and fractured and then begins to flow and becomes a waterfall. That is how that part worked. It wasn‘t like we thought, “We have gone so many minutes and now we need this dialogue.” For me the process is more like touch: You have turned off the lights and you have to find your way around the room through touch. So you are dealing with what you come across first. What is the couch like? What is the wallpaper? You have an idea of the room through a different sense, and it is different than your concept.
Was there then a catalyst that brought all of these ideas into a film? It is interesting how film people speak about making things; it is so different from my background. Let‘s put it this way: The film was a process and it had to be that way.
In that exchange between Sands and Father Moran, the repartee is fairly dense and varied. Did you see the dialogue as having a specific shape or direction? I don‘t write, but I knew exactly what I wanted to say. It is like a musician who hums a lot. They know what they hear, but they need someone who actually writes music to write it down. I knew that at the beginning I wanted throwaway conversation. But that would just be the beginning of this avalanche of words. I wanted it to be silly or whatever, to be about the two feeling each other out through this jiving and joking and roundabout conversation. It was almost like writing music.
Their dialogue rehearses some very basic arguments about political engagement, spirituality, and civic accountability. Was that debate also happening in your head? No, I came to all of this through my research of this world. I just listened to everything so I could digest and regurgitate the two sides of this situation. I wanted to show the back and forth. It was almost like watching Connors and McEnroe at the Wimbledon finals, two guys wanting the same thing, but one‘s a server and the other‘s a baseline hitter. And they both are so good that they just go back and forth.
It is interesting that you use that analogy since the idea of political engagement as gamesmanship is raised several times in the debate. Does the idea of game playing inform this story? Of course not! Debate is debate, but this movie is about human beings — the guards and the prisoners. They are trying to survive in an extraordinary situation that has become ordinary to them. It is about the prison guards that have to go to prison every day, six days a week, to a ward where the walls are smeared with feces and filled with brutality, and then at the end of the day have to go home and be sort of normal in a way. Then there are the people who have to live in that situation 24 hours a day, in excrement and piss. For me it is looking at the human element of all that. It is not fractured — it is not about right and wrong, left and right, but about you and me.
Was that exchange between the priest and Sands based on a real event? No, that conversation never actually happened. What I wanted to have happen is for people to have a clear idea about what was at stake, to understand all of this in a raw, stripped-down way. You can ask the questions one would want to ask in that situation. How would that question be answered? And than you follow that, you go this way, you go that way. You have to bring to the fore the essence of the question, of the situation really.
Your film seems to set up a series of rhythms and moods: still, frantic, silent, argumentative, brutal, surreal, etc. How did these rhythms emerge? A lot happened in the writing, and a lot happened on set. I wasn‘t trying to tell a story, but to create an atmosphere, a feeling that I could drag into a linear narrative. The film is basically linear — 24 frames a second, dragging on for an hour and a half through a machine. But the story is the journey you go on. I wanted to create the atmosphere, a sense of place. In this film, this guy makes a decision that he is going to put his life on the line, and then he dies. How do you contextualize that? Well, you feel it out. Here is the cell: it is six feet by four feet for 24 hours a day. And from there you ask question after question after question. What dictated the camera for me was the prison itself, the architecture of the prison. We didn‘t do any breakaway walls; we just followed the actual architecture. They would wake up in the morning, and their bodies would be covered in maggots, and in the summer the maggots would turn into blue bottle flies. And then there was the cold, and the elements. These are the things I very much wanted to portray.
As a journey, the film seems to throw the viewer several red herrings — first following a guard, then a fellow prisoner — before landing on Bobby Sands. No. You use a red herring to fool people, to let them down. That is not what this is about. I wanted to introduce people into the Maze. Then I wanted to leave them there. So at the start we bring in a prison officer, then we bring in a new inmate, and then he meets a veteran inmate. And you make sense of the Maze through these characters. At the start you are Raymond, the prison officer, and then you are Gerry, the fellow inmate.
The film seems to have three movements, each characterized by a different style. In the first one, the camera is slow and deliberate as it studies the prison and the prisoners, and there is almost no dialogue. The second is the long debate between Sands and the priest. And the third, after Sands starts the hunger strike, is very lyrical and dreamlike — the camera goes in and out of focus; memories are called up from the past. What was the thinking behind these different styles? Really it is all about what works. Maybe no one has done that before, but it works, so I‘ll do it. In the last part, you know, it takes a long time to die, especially in that way. He grows weak and moves inside himself. But you have to be tangible with the metaphors since this part is about the physicality of the body. As power drains from the body, it goes inside.
It was quite beautiful how Sands begins to misapprehend the outside world. I was reminded of a line from a Wallace Stevens poem, “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” about a man slowly dying looking out the window: “How easily the blown banners change to wings...” If you have ever fasted before, there is a weird thing that goes on; it centers you. Imagine if you are 60 or so odd days gone — something else starts to occur. It‘s like in Proust, when the present and the past seem to occur at the same time.
Except for a few exceptions, you stage all the drama within the walls of the prison. But much of the struggle of the hunger strike had to do with the politics of the world outside. Can you talk about that tension between the inside and the outside here? The truth is this was the front line. The struggle in the Maze and in the cellblock, that is where the war was taking place, that is where Margaret Thatcher met the Irish army. I didn‘t have to go outside for that. This was the essence of the situation — two extremes meeting right there.
How did that struggle manifest itself? You know, it‘s like that spiral of shit on the cell wall; it is history repeating itself. The guards take it off, and the prisoners put it back up, and so on, and so on.
So many of your scenes are so corporeal, filled with shit, piss, puss, blood. I read somewhere that you wanted your films to produce smells. But, of course, smell isn‘t a possibility in film. No, not that exactly. I want to create the trigger for something. It‘s like in literature; something triggers a memory, a smell, a taste. It takes you someplace.
Is your goal to make film a sensory experience? It is so difficult to talk about making films. Cinema is just a baby, only a hundred and so years old. Certainly not as far gone as painting. Everything is up for grabs. And people are responding to the film. Thank God! When you get people doing a 20-minute standing ovation in Cannes and then in Toronto, you realize that people are open to different ways of watching movies. In the end, film is just a tool. There is no right or wrong way of doing it. It is whether it works or not. That is the only thing that I am interested in.