Pangs of Hunger for Realism

in 51st BFI London Film Festival

by Richard Mowe

HungerThere’s a new mood of realism in British cinema, evinced in some of the selection from this year’s festival. Titles such as Broken Lines, Shifty and I Know You Know never shirked from revealing emotions in the raw against uncompromising backgrounds. Nowhere was the sense of telling it as it is more apparent than in Turner prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s take on IRA icon Bobby Sands.   

The audience at the first public screening in London of Hunger, the feature film debut of McQueen, greeted it with an awed silence before bursting into applause.

McQueen, a burly giant of man, who wrote Hunger in tandem with Enda Walsh and is now  responsible for some of the most harrowing scenes ever committed to celluloid, found it a struggle to get his film made. The artist who has always used film in his work, including the 1997 short film Deadpan, ploughed in his own salary into the project and, when the going became tough, topped up the budget with more of his own cash.          

The birth of the film goes back to 2005 when Channel 4 and Film4 called him to arrange a meeting to discuss what he might like to direct. The case of Bobby Sands had made a big impression on him as a youth growing up in Brixton. He recalls vividly the year 1981 as being a time when he started to become aware of events going on around him.          

“Tottenham, my football team, won the FA cup; there were the Brixton Riots, and there was this guy Bobby Sands whose face kept appearing on TV with a photograph and a number at the side of his name. And what was interesting for me was the figure which was detailing the number of days he had been on hunger strike and which was changed each day. At 11 years old it was something that awakened me to my surroundings. All three elements are related because it represented an awakening of my consciousness. It was then that I started to question things. So the story has been with me for a long time. I was passionate about making it into a film. I wanted to show what it was like to see, hear, smell and touch in the H-block in 1981. What I wanted to convey was something you cannot find in books or archives. Yet the film is also an abstraction of what it is to die for a cause.      

“With art you are trying to create form but with film it is how you create a very ancient form: storytelling. Art is more difficult. You have to make the language and have it make sense at the same time.”        

The film is as much about Bobby Sands as the environment that existed during the period. McQueen hopes it will also have a universal resonance and that it is received as even-handed, suggesting that he identified as much with the prison officers as the prisoners. He and Walsh interviewed representatives of both, returning to London with a huge amount of material to craft into the script. Out of respect for the feelings of the Sands family, no attempt was made to contact them as part of the research process.          

There was one image that haunted McQueen during the making of the film. “The image in my head was of a child that refused to eat. His mother tells him he cannot leave the table until he eats. For this child, at that moment, in a world ruled by his parents, refusing to eat is the only way he can fight back.”          

When Enda Walsh joined the project he had a good sense of the direction McQueen would take from his knowledge of his art works. “Without working narratively, in a classical sense, he always tells very human stories. He’s got a real instinct for characters and worlds. In my plays particularly I’m interested in the effects of the environment on characters and how that affects the story structure, so it was a good match.”            

Shot in Belfast with help from the Northern Ireland Screen, McQueen created the Maze in a specially built studio as it would have been too contentious to film in the actual building itself.            

Michael Fassbender, the actor charged with portraying Sands, had to undergo a radical physical transformation before he started the work in earnest. He spent 10 weeks in Los Angeles under strict medical supervision to get his weight down from his normal 73 to 58 kilos and met one of the ex-prisoners as part of his research. “Apparently some of them were in agony after a week, while others were fine for up to 60 days and then deteriorated very quickly. What helped me was going on the diet and going away from my friends and my girlfriend. You could watch how the diet affected your own body, and you would see bones poking out where they didn’t used to. My arse was gone pretty quickly, and then you stop noticing. It felt like being anorexic.          

“I went to see the doctor in London after I had put the weight back on just to make sure everything was all right and he said you still look really thin. The doctor said that basically I was fine because the last time I had left his surgery the doctor’s receptionist had said to him that I looked really ill, and that I must be dying. I was happy to hear that in a way. 58 kilos is said to be safe, but once you go beneath that it gets dangerous. Actually I only managed to get down to 59.”      

Asked whether he feared any backlash when the film is released in Ireland, he said:  “I am not worried because there is a fantastic atmosphere up there are at the moment and it is well on the way to mending all the years of strife. My mum is from Larne and many of my relatives are up there around Ballymena and I used to go all the time for holidays. My main concern is that it would do justice to the people in the North because many films that have dealt with the Troubles have been patronising.”        

McQueen believes that Fassbender has the potential to become a significant star. “There are no two ways about it,” he says adamantly. As if to underline that promise Fassbender has been confirmed for the role of Heathcliff in a new production of Wuthering Heights to be directed by John Maybury. He has also recently completed a horror film for Joel Schumacher, Creek.        

After the experience on Hunger, does McQueen who regards cinema in his own words “as holding a mirror up to society,” want to continue his foray into the movies? “This was my first time on a film set,” he said. “I hope to keep some of that naivety. I’ve been sent loads of scripts, but it is rather like a series of blind dates and making a choice is difficult. I think I have to be involved in writing the script again. But it all takes time … ”      

What does not appear to be in any doubt is that, out of the artist, a new film-maker has been born.  

Richard Mowe