Cannes 2008 diary: 'Hunger'

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Dave Calhoun sees much promise in artist Steve McQueen debut film, 'Hunger', which received its premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival

Politics are everywhere in 'Hunger', British artist Steve McQueen's impressive, moving and experimental film about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands which opened the Un Certain Regard section of the 61st Cannes Film Festival on Thursday night. But you can hardly call this a political movie in any traditional sense: for McQueen, politics are the catalyst only for a much more personal, imaginative study of exceptional individuals putting their bodies through exceptional ordeals for a cause. It’s the nature of the ordeal that attracts McQueen's gaze and which he investigates the most in this film, rather than the manifestos and the context of this extraordinary moment in the history of the Troubles.

Almost all of McQueen's film takes place in 1980 and 1981 in the political wing of Northern Ireland's Maze prison, where Republican prisoners were carrying out a dirty protest against their jailers in response to not being afforded official 'political prisoner' status by the British government. As their defiance escalated, so did the response of their masters in prison, and McQueen doesn't shy away from portraying the wardens and the riot police called in to contain the situation as officially sanctioned thugs.

It's symbolic of McQueen's attention to personal, human details, though, that we open by witnessing the bloodied, torn knuckles of a jailer as he washes his hands in a sink. We only realise the origin of his wounds when we jump back half-an-hour later in the film to witness him throwing a punch at a prisoner, missing and connecting with the wall instead. There's another moment later on when we see a riot cop cowering behind a wall and crying; McQueen doesn't attribute all pain to the Republican side of this conflict.

But it's the bodily horror inflicted on Republican prisoners both by the British authorities and by themselves that most interests McQueen. If his subjects aren't being beaten up, they're killing themselves instead in the most rational of fashions. McQueen's film has several movements to it both in story and style. For the first, we follow two prisoners in the reality and mechanics of the dirty protest, smearing shit on the walls, pouring urine underneath their doors, and even smuggling in radio equipment from visitors by secreting it up their behinds. Most of this is silent, serene even, with McQueen's camera lingering on details such as a prisoner's finger playing with a fly in the window. This serenity is only broken by the violence and shouts and punches of regular incursions from the authorities.

It's a while before Sands appears, played superbly by Michael Fassbender, and in a shift of pace we become party to his decision to go on hunger strike in a suddenly loquacious scene which depicts a conversation betweens Sands and a priest played by Liam Cunningham. McQueen shoots this conversation in one shot for many minutes. We've had so much silence up to now that suddenly we're hanging on every word as Sands explains that there are 75 prisoners willing to go on strike and defends himself against the priest's suggestion that denying any chance to negotiate is simply suicide.

From there we're quickly with Sands during his final days. Again, McQueen pulls no punches. Sands' body is covered in ulcers; he vomits blood; he can't see; his hearing fails. The subject here is quite plain: death in all its possible horror. For this chapter, the film could be about a man dying of cancer or AIDS or some other disease which causes the body to go through an astonishing transformation and levels of suffering. If some of the naked, bearded, long-haired prisoners on dirty protest earlier in the film had a touch of the Christ to them, there's nothing so saintly here. Fassbender, who slimmed down dramatically during a two-month break from shooting, looks so emaciated it's actually quite hard to keep your eyes on him, especially as McQueen's camera breaks with its earlier calm demeanour and swings around the ceiling of the room, seemingly imitating the hallucinatory nature of serious illness and approaching death.

For McQueen, the details of hardline Republicanism, the specifics of Republican prisoners' arguments over their political status, and even the haunting voice of Margaret Thatcher on the soundtrack denouncing pity as the basest of human emotions all play second fiddle to an examination of exactly what it meant to live – and, for Sands and nine other prisoners, die – in prison in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. What McQueen and Fassbender give us here is a martyr who literally gives his whole body over to a cause.

Read Cannes review of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ here

Read Cannes review of Clint Eastwood's 'The Exchange' here

Read Cannes review of Terence Davies 'Of Time and the City' here

Read Cannes review of Woody Allen's 'Vicky Christina Barcelona' here

Read Cannes review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'Three Monkeys' and Pablo Trapero's 'Lion's Den' here

Read our review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'Three Monkeys' and Pablo Trapero's 'Lion's Den' here

Read our review of Fernando Meirelles Cannes 2008 opener,' 'Blindness', here

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