'By coincidence, things are aligning themselves where the topic of this film is on everyone's mind,' says artist-turned-film-maker Steve McQueen about his debut feature Hunger. 'In the current climate, I hope the film has some resonance with anyone who sees it.'
Hunger certainly struck a chord in Cannes - after screening in Un Certain Regard it won the Camera d'Or, recognising the best first feature across the festival. Hunger follows events in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in 1981, when IRA prisoner Bobby Sands led a hunger strike that claimed the lives of 10 prisoners in a bid to be recognised as political prisoners.
McQueen does not flinch from depicting the horrific events.'I think people are over being shocked by now as far as images in films are concerned,' he says, 'but I also think this might be able to penetrate people's armour.'
What he wanted to explore is how far people are willing to go for a cause, in particular by using their own bodies rather than guns or bombs as the vehicle for political warfare. 'Who or what would you die for yourself' These are the very big questions and one doesn't always have to have the answer to it.'
Winner of the UK's prestigious art award the Turner Prize in 1999, McQueen has always used film in his art, including the 1997 work Deadpan inspired by Buster Keaton. In a 2003 meeting with Channel 4/Film4, he was asked what he would like to direct and decided on the Maze Prison story.
McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Enda Walsh, was so committed to Hunger he put his director's salary into the film as well as topping up the budget with his own money (the project was co-funded by Northern Ireland Screen and the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland). 'It's one of those situations where you have to do what you can to make what you want to make,' he says.
He was also thrilled to be working with actors ('I love getting my hands dirty with them'), including his star Michael Fassbender, whose portrayal of Sands is staggering in its physical and mental commitment. Production was shut down for two-and-a-half months so the actor could go on a medically supervised diet to lose weight for the final scenes. 'He came back almost like a little Buddha; there was a clarity in him,' says McQueen.
With his Camera d'Or and several Cannes deals for Hunger (including Pathe for the UK and IFC for the US), McQueen is being hailed as a talented discovery. He plans to pursue narrative film-making and sees creating art and movies as the same thing. 'It's like speaking in English and speaking in French - you're saying the same things but differently,' he says. 'I was never training in the art world to be in the feature film world because I feel both are the same.'