When Steve McQueen showed the financiers of his new feature-length film an early cut, they were "shitting themselves," the British artist recalls. His first full-length film, which captures the final weeks of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands' life, begins with a 22-minute scene -- 17 minutes of which have no cuts, pans or closeups -- of an actor playing Sands discussing his plan to starve himself. Not exactly the stuff of box office gold. But McQueen says, “I knew what I was doing.”
Apparently so. The Turner Prize winner won a Caméra d'Or at Cannes this year for Hunger, which plays at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center Apr. 10 through 26. McQueen was a boy when Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army, started his hunger strike in 1981, but while it left a mark on him, he says the story has been "swept beneath the carpet, it hasn't been given any daylight, and for me it was one of, if not the, most important events happening in Britain in the last 30 years."
Then 27, Sands' final weeks of life were slow and excruciating: it took him 66 days to starve himself to death. But while Sands protested the British government, Hunger isn't intended as a fiercely political work (critic Rob Nelson says the World Socialist World criticized McQueen for the apolitical nature of the work). He told the Wall Street Journal, "Hero or villain, that's for other people to decide. For me, it's one of those situations where I'm a filmmaker, and this is actually what happened in history, this is a true event. For me, this is what happened. I'm not here to judge the situation; I'm here to examine and document it."
Still, McQueen won't say it's "art" either. The Observer's Sean O'Hagan writes:
A friend of mine from Northern Ireland, who has seen Hunger, said McQueen had 'pulled off the impossible' by 'making an art film about the IRA'. When I mention the term 'art film', McQueen thows me a fierce look. 'I don't know what you mean by that,' he says. 'What I tried to do was make the strongest, most powerful film I could from the events and the story. It may not have the conventional narrative of most feature films but that is my way of grappling with the subject. Art has absolutely nothing to do with it.'More:
IndieWIRE: Weights and Measures: Steve McQueen’s “Hunger”