Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Revisited: Steve McQueen Discusses the Politics of the Body in "Hunger"

A complete unknown in the film a few years ago, Steve McQueen has become an art house and festival favorite with only two films. This week sees the release of his highly anticipated film, Shame, which stars Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in New York. The film (reviewed at the New York Film Festival here) marks the second collaboration between the director and actor. Their first film, Hunger, debuted in 2008 to critical raves and won Mr. McQueen the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for best debut feature. Below is a piece on Mr. McQueen written during the film’s US release in March 2009. Hunger is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, and I highly recommend it to anyone compelled about Shame.

Despite a similar name, director Steve McQueen is not the same one who rode the motorcycle in The Great Escape. The Black British artist has been working in visual arts for many years, but Hunger, a devastating and brutal film about the 1981 Irish Republican Army Hunger strikes led by Bobby Sands, is his first feature film. Lunged over in his chair with an astute pair of glasses, Mr. McQueen spoke sternly at the Meatpacking District Hotel where we met, occasionally sipping on a fresh tea and taking long pauses before every answer. Mr. McQueen explained that this was a story he needed to tell, “Young people talk about Abu Grahib and Guantanamo but don’t even know what happened in their own backyard 27 years ago.”

            Hunger is a mostly silent film that tells the story of the people within a prison known in the United Kingdom as “The Maze,” where a number of IRA prisoners participated in a series of dirty protests (no cleaning or shaving) and eventually turned into a hunger strike. The purpose? To regain their status as political prisoners, instead of simply regular criminals.

As Mr. McQueen notes, he was not as interested in the politics of the situation, but the human implications. “It was when I was 11 years old. It was one of those times where it was an image on the television screen of this man, and a number underneath this image. The numbers kept on going up everyday we watched the news. It was very strange at first because I thought it was his age but it was the number of days this man was going on a hunger strike. At that age, it was almost the end of childhood in a way.”

            What separates Hunger from being another political film and into a very unique experience is the complete lack of dialogue within the film—besides for a single conversation directly in the middle of the film, Mr. McQueen tells his entire story through visuals. “It was all about details that weren’t shown. The broader political arguments are there.  What I was interested was what they had to do, what they physically did, in order to sort of be hurt. That’s what I wanted people to observe and see.”

Mr. McQueen’s visual style is simply breathtaking—his shots meticulous and memorable: a man standing against a wall as the snow falls, a wall covered in excrement sprayed down, urine sneaking under the doors of a prison cell. Mr. McQueen’s background in visual arts is evident throughout, which drives his filmic perception: “When I’m looking in a viewfinder, I’m not thinking of Scorsese or Spielberg, Fellini or Antonioni, or whoever. I’m thinking what’s the best way of shooting a scene.  What’s the best way of making this actual situation work? Real life is much more inspirational than movies.”

Many people have discussed Hunger’s one scene of dialogue—a 17 and a half-minute unbroken take of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) talking with a priest (Rory Mullen) about the moral and philosophical consequences of a hunger strike. “I wanted an intimate conversation. I didn’t want a situation where the camera would show the one, cut, show the other. What’s happening is that person is having a conversation with the audience. So having the two in the frame, battle it—what it does is it creates a situation where people’s eyes become much more sharp and the ears become much more in tune.”

Another amazing statement is the way Mr. McQueen begins the film. Instead of starting with Sands and him rallying the troops, the director begins with a prison guard starting his day, and we never meet Sands until about 25 minutes into the film. “What I wanted to do is to lead people into the Maze. So it was the idea of routine. So the whole idea of the prison officer waking up in the morning, eating his breakfast, and getting prepared for this day, and leading you into this Maze in a linear way, I was interested in. And getting another side of the Maze, before we meet Sands, so watching another prisoner brought into the Maze at the same time, leading you into how that works, the ritual situation,”

Mr. McQueen, who spent five years of his life working on Hunger, is taking a break from films until he finds another project to be so passionate about (he will be the British representative at this year’s Venice Biennale). In the end it was truly about trying to show the world. “Walls covered in excrement. Men not washing or shaving, not cleaning themselves for four and a half years. And the floor covered in urine. But as a protest. Using the body as a weapon, as a form of protest. I wanted to show that world.”

When I asked him about those who will find the film difficult to watch, he scoffed it off. “If people are going to walk out, they walk out. They turn their back on what’s actually going on in the world, If people want to be ignorant of that, that’s their business.” But in a world of increasing problems, turning away is the last thing to do.

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