By David D'Arcy
The title of Hunger by Steve McQueen says it all. Bobby Sands went on a hunger strike in 1981 to demand political rights for Irish Republican prisoners in HM Maze Prison (also called Long Kesh). He began the hunger strike in May 1981. Everyone saw the images of Sands and others wearing blankets instead of prison uniforms and smearing excrement on the walls. 66 days later he was dead. Dozens of prisoners lined up to take his place.
If attention to his cause was what he hungered for, Sands got it. It was a gesture that the British and the rest of the world could not ignore. Britain went so far as to pass a law barring convicted felons from running for election to Parliament, to prevent other hunger strikers from getting themselves voted in, as Sands had done.
This is not a story about escaping to fight the British again - The Great Escape was the other Steve McQueen - yet it is a tale of sacrifice, brimming with Christian symbolism. Sands is skeletal enough to be on a gothic crucifix.
The camera in Hunger is never too far from its subject, or from the ominous dripping bricks and bars of the old prison. The confined space gives the film the feel of a work of theater; the pacing has the feel of a death march. The acting is measured and deliberate, like a pageant meant to teach a lesson. The crescendo is a quiet conversation between the emaciated Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham), in which the prisoner talks about starving to death with the same resolution as Joan of Arc accepts her martyrdom in Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic The Passion of Joan of Arc.
I spoke to Steve McQueen about his first feature during the New York Film Festival.
You've said that, as a young kid growing up, you were drawn to the character of Bobby Sands.
I was eleven years old, and an image appeared on the TV screen every night, with a number underneath it, and the image was of him, so every night the numbers went up, and as an eleven year old kid the whole idea that, in order to he heard, someone had stopped eating was kind of weird for me. It was an oral situation - food wasn't going in, but the words were getting louder. It stayed in my mind. It was such an extreme situation for an eleven year old. The same year there were the Brixton riots, and my football team was in the FA Cup. It was a coming of age situation for me.
It's striking that Sands had an appeal that went beyond Irish nationalism. The Iranians named the street where the British Embassy is Bobby Sands Street - where, of all things, there is a Bobby Sands Snack Bar.
Yes. They named the street for Bobby Sands, and then the British government changed the entrance to the building to the street behind it. It was the same time as the revolution in Iran, and the mythology of martyrdom in Iran was huge. One of the people whom they took up was Bobby Sands.
Why did you feel that this story had to be a feature film, as opposed to an art installation of the sort that you had done up to this point?
Narrative was necessary for this situation. There was a always a process behind that, and feature film or narrative served the situation far better than any other format. It's all about the idea, and where the idea leads me, more than anything else, and the best way of presenting this was through a feature film.
I know it sounds corny and simple and obvious, but everyone in the world - from Alaska to Helsinki to Timbuktu to Papua New Guinea - could tell you story, and that for me is quite amazing. Everyone from those places can tell you a story, but not everyone has grown up with the idea of western art. The whole idea of this film, being able to travel and translate, it's the whole idea of history repeating itself, that this historical event which happened 27 years ago is as relevant now as it was then, as far as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and other situations in history are concerned. These are people who made their bodies in some shape or form into a weapon. It's always been there. Of course, this is different from 9/11, when airplanes were used to blow up other people. This is someone who was using his body, and not hurting anyone but himself to make a point.
What's been the art world reaction to Hunger, if there's been any?
I don't know. It's neither here nor there for me. What's more interesting is the audience's reaction. My greatest ambition was to have one or possibly two critics that might like the film, but what's happened during festivals like Cannes and Toronto is that the audience really responded to me - standing ovations in Cannes and Toronto. I was heart-warmed and surprised that the audience was responding in that way.
Did you consider any familiarity among your actors with the Bobby Sands case when you were casting?
That wasn't entirely important, I'll be frank. I imagine that, if you're Irish, in some shape or form, you'll be familiar with this story, and all my actors were from the south and the north of Ireland, so therefore they would all be familiar and have a take on it. So that wasn't a worry. But if they hadn't, it wouldn't have been a problem, since I think the notion or the idea of someone who refrains from eating to make a point is kind of extreme. Yet most of the guys had a story to tell - from makeup to costume to the art designer, everyone had a story to tell about what went on during the hunger strike. What was interesting about the set was what was in front of the camera was the past, and what was behind the camera was the future. People said they had to stay up all night doing the rosary or banging dustbin lids when Bobby Sands died.
Were any of those recollections incorporated into the script?
Yes. What was incorporated into the script was when Sands died and there was the banging of the dustbin lids. But that was also a ritual that they did when the army was coming. It was to allow people to know what was going on.
How did you prepare the actors for their performances?
Conversations and rehearsal. The conversation was, "What is it, what does it mean?" And again, this is not just a Bobby Sands film. This is an H-Block film, with him coming in 40 minutes into the movie. We were trying to conjure up the notion of that time, that dark period of history in the beginning of the 80s - and then going into rehearsal. You don't allow the actors to come off the runway. But just keep them in that mode. So that when we do shoot that sequence, of the two guys having that conversation [Bobby Sands and a Catholic priest], it is tense because it's the first time they're having that conversation. It's one take, one shot, so the tension is still there. And the conversation is all about a reason to live and a reason to die. We had that atmosphere on set at that time. It's a case of conjuring up the atmosphere, that smell of that time, which was pretty dark.
Bookmark/Search this post with: