A British Artist Plumbs the Politics of Hunger
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‘Full-bodied cinema” is one way of describing “Hunger,” the extraordinary debut feature by the British artist Steve McQueen that will screen this weekend at the New York Film Festival. Often grueling but never gratuitous, the film relives the incarceration of members of the Irish Republican Army in the infamous Maze prison near Belfast, specifically the 1981 hunger strike led by Bobby Sands until his death. The immersive film, full of sensual texture and finely isolated detail, is at once fascinating, devastating, and deeply moving.
“I often get the impression when I go to cinema that you become a bit numb to what’s going on in front of you — that it becomes a visual thing rather than a whole-experience thing,” Mr. McQueen, 38, said, animated even after recently arriving on a transatlantic flight for the festival. “For me it was all about the feel of the film, the very bodily experiences of the prisoners being in the cell, in the H-block in the Maze prison.”
“Hunger” relates these prisoners’ resistance after years of turmoil over the fate of Northern Ireland, examining the politics of torture and the drive for spiritual transcendence. After a prologue that follows a tense guard from his home to the prison, we are largely confined within its institutional walls, accompanied by shaggy men who, for a while, surreally resemble a troop of Jesus figures, clad only in blankets. Precise and alert, Mr. McQueen’s technique records the physical and existential extremity of the prison life, from the inmates’ clandestine camaraderie to their visual protest of feces smeared in mesmerizing whorls to forcible searches and ritualistic gauntlets.
Mr. McQueen’s film won the Camera d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival — not a bad start for a debut fiction feature, but not entirely surprising given his success and esteem as a film and video artist. Based in Amsterdam, Mr. McQueen will represent Great Britain at the 2009 Venice Biennale. In 1999, he won the ultra-hyped Turner Prize for a reworking of Buster Keaton’s famous falling-house gag from “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Mr. McQueen’s 2002 documentary “Western Deep” was an immersive descent into a stifling South African gold mine.
The genesis of “Hunger,” in a sense, dates back to Mr. McQueen’s childhood as an 11-year-old growing up in Ealing, London, and his memories of Sands’s hunger strike.
“It was one of those things that played on TV,” Mr. McQueen recalled of the strike, which had begun as the blanket protest in 1976, when the British government withdrew Special Category Status for convicted paramilitary prisoners. In 1981, the second of two hunger strikes claimed 10 lives, including Sand’s, but not before he had been elected as a member of Parliament as it stretched on. “A still image would appear behind the newsreader, with a number on the photograph, and every day it would go higher. In order to be heard, the person stopped eating. It’s very oral: food not going in, words coming out louder. It was a coming-of-age situation. The same year was the Brixton Riots and Tottenham winning the F.A. cup.”
Early on, “Hunger” follows a few individuals (the first guard, a new prisoner, and his cellmate), but its second half zeros in on Sands’s self-deprivation. The Irish actor Michael Fassbender, seen recently in François Ozon’s “Angel,” embodies Sands, wasting away on-screen through drastic, carefully overseen weight loss.
In the film, Sands’s decision comes only after an unforgettable dialogue with a priest, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), in a scene that includes a 17-minute unbroken shot.
“What I wanted very much is an intimate conversation between the two, but at the same time, a pushing away of the audience,” Mr. McQueen said, explaining the staging of the table conversation in backlit profile. “So what happens is the audience leans in closer, our eyes and ears become sharper and attuned. It’s almost like we’re intruding.”
It’s but one example of several formal decisions that are sure-handed and effective without ever flaunting rigor for its own sake. But a possible comparison to the British television director Alan Clarke, whose hard-hitting films include the cult 1979 juvenile-prison drama “Scum,” doesn’t work for Mr. McQueen. He sees instead a quality in “Hunger” that will sound surprising only until you watch the movie and absorb the inmates’ iron spirit.
“I just think there’s no redeeming situation in ‘Scum,'” he said. “What my film has as a quality is the humanity. That’s me. It’s you and me as such; that’s what I’m interested in.”
“Hunger” screens Saturday at noon and Sunday at 6:15 p.m. at the Ziegfeld Theater (141 W. 54th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 212-875-5610).