Louder than Bombs
Turner prize-winning video artists Steve McQueen has made his first feature, a harrowing portrayal of the 1981 IRA hunger strike. He talks to Octavia Morris about making one of this year's most uncompromising films.
Without doubt the most extreme, visceral and provocative feature film to have emerged from the UK for many years is Hunger the mind-blowing debut from the Turner Prize-winning video artist Steve McQueen. The film stole the Camera d'Or when it premiered at Cannes in May, leaving a trial of anger, bewilderment and nausea in its wake. The story portrays life in Belfast's Maze Prison during the 1981 IRA Hunger strike led by Bobby Sands (remarkably portrayed by Michael Fassbender), who died 66 days into his starvation protest a revolt against Margaret Thatcher's 1976 law that classed all political prisoners as ordinary criminals, removing their former rights to Special Category Status (and its implied privileges).
This moment in history may not be an oblivious choice of movie material, but for McQueen, whose experience with the medium has hitherto been limited to gallery installation, it was the perfect place to start. "The early 80s was a strange time, very scary. Three news stories stuck in my mind as a child, and they have stayed with me all my life the Brixton riots, Tottenham winning the FA Cup, and Bobby Sands," he recalls. "There were images of Bobby all over the television every day, with a number underneath, and every day that number would change. As an impressionable 11-year-old, the idea that, just be heard, someone stopped eating was a real awakening for me. My reality was completely altered, and for the first time I left like I was seeing my surroundings as they truly were."
It these events were the first to strip life's layers of artifice from the artist's perspective, then their power and significance in the resulting film. Hunger depicts a really where smearing faeces over cell walls, pouring urine buckets under doors and smuggling radio "comms" in ingested wraps were, in the face of humiliations and torture, part of the protesters' daily lives. Every sequence, without exception, is brutal, raw and thoroughly un compromising. The audience lives through Sand's agonizing deterioration as each organ starts so fall him, followed by each of the senses, until he left with only his consciousness, haunted by daydreams and flashbacks of his childhood. One 22-minute dialogue between Sands and a priest, played out like a "philosophical chess game", takes centre stage, while the rest of the film consist of disturbing silences, only occasionally interrupted by details such as bleeding knuckle, or Thatcher's sterile addresses to Parliament crackling through a distant radio.
In spite of these acidic images, Hunger unfolds without judgement or emotional manipulation. It does not look to impose a specific political agenda. It is rather a subtle and genuinely disturbing exploration into the concept of the body as a site for political warfare. McQueen genius lies in communicating through all five senses, through the sole medium of a camera, the deeper psychology of those who choose it as a last resource for protest. "It's the shit, it's the piss... you have to smell it that atmosphere and that texture all over the walls, like you're feeling your way through a dark room," explains the artist. "The camera should never be an obstacle. It's an instrument that we look through in order to translate history not necessarily using the eyes, but sound, taste, smell, touch, all at the same time." This sensual experience is vital to the way McQueen connects his audience with the film's subject a quality that also recurs throughout his artwork, in which the mind's intricacies enjoy similar thematic prominence. It is particularly relevant to Hunger, where the subject the same body that contains the scenes with which we receive it is being destroyed.
McQueen's honesty and refusal to compromise is his driving force as an artist, and it's a approach to filmmaking that is raw, experimental, and demands the kind of ruthlessness that can't be bough or learned. As it happens, McQueen's formal film training amounts to little more than a short-lived stint at NYU in his 20s, after studying at Goldsmiths and Chelsea. "Fucking hated it,' he says. 'It was all about money, never about the idea, I think I lasted about three months! If you have a great idea, then who cares if you shoot it on some dodgy camera? What matters is that it's new, fresh and exciting." True to his word, McQueen creates his film with just a few basic ingredients. "You don't need CGI and all that bollocks," he says. "I mean look at the Nouvelle Vague sure it was to do with economy, but the essence was about ideas. They'll pay you millions in Hollywood for fucking idea. Without it, you can't do fuck all, and all that fancy equipment is going to sit there and rot a good idea is like falling in love, you just don't know when it's going to happen."
When McQueen started the project, there was no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib and Iraq War (later, in 2003 he received an official commission from the Imperial War Museum's Arts Committee to work as a war artist in Iraq). Nevertheless, history yet again demonstrated its endless capacity for repetition, and Hunger's contemporary resonance in our era of suicide bombing is unavoidable.
"I always wanted to have a screen in a cinema that was like a mirror, so that when people saw the movie, they were really looking at themselves," he reflects. In the case of Hunger, the viewer is forced to question his or her own moral standards when scenes of naked inmates being beaten with truncheons sit side by side with, for example, ones depicting a prison officer being shot dead into his mother's lap as he visits her nursing home with an armful of daisies. We're human beings, and that's all we need to know, whether we're in a five-by-six foot cell or whatever. It's not exotic, it's not extraordinary, but in it we recognize the best end the worst of ourselves, and that's why I can identify both sides."
The point is that while parallels can be drawn with countries all around the world, at the end of the day it's what's underneath your own bed that's most relevant. "Absolutely," says McQueen. "If it's underneath your bed, then it's yours! You should be able to make a masterpiece from what's under your bed, why not? Why the fuck not?!" Good question. It is with this same defiance and fearlessness that McQueen has composed and arranged each element into its whole with such precision. It's a quality that many far more experienced directors would be hard pushed to achieve, but one that McQueen modestly attributes to naivety. "You never know all the answers. Things occur in the world without you knowing, and that's the magic of art, the magic of words, the magic of being creative. People without balls never cross the line, but that's what it's all about, man. What are you going to do? You're going to die anyway, so fuck it! Just take the chance."