Bringing Bobby Sands to international stages, hunger strike director Steve McQueen talks to Movies.ie
Steve McQueen, winner of the UK’s Turner Prize – is no stranger to controversy either in the UK (where he is based) or internationally. He decided to make a full-length movie a couple of years ago, the only problem was that he had absolutely no starting point. Then came his inspiration. He recalled “sitting at home when I was a child, I must have been about eleven or twelve years old, this would be 1981, and every night on the news an image would be flashed up, and there would be a number beside it… 13 one night, then 14, then 15… until it progressed to the twenties, then the thirties, then the forties. I hadn’t got a clue what was going on, and I wondered if someone was playing some sort of game?
“Then I started to ask questions of my mum and dad, as any child would, and while the weren’t exactly enthusiastic about answering me in full, they told me that the picture was of a man called Bobby Sands, and that he was on hunger strike in a place called The Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The numbers alongside his photograph were the number of days that he’d been continuing his actions…”
For the young McQueen, it was quite a momentous year and several things stick in his memory. “He Brixton Riots, for a start, and Tottenham, my team, winning the FA Cup. And this haunting image of Sands”.
So, when Channel 4 first approached McQueen with an offer of making a film, he knew “almost immediately” what his theme was going to be.
Bobby Sands was to die on the 66th day of his fast in the Maze, on May. He was aged only 27. The hunger strike went doggedly on in protest against British government removal of political status for IRA prisoners. Special Category Status had been in place until March 1976 when the then administration drooped it – first came a “dirty protest” and then a blanket protest (where prisoners refused to wear the uniforms of “ordinary” criminals, then a hunger strike. That was called off when they were told that they would be given different clothing – which turned out to be bizarrely patterned and highly colourful “clown’s uniforms”. A vicious riot started in which heavy damage was done to the prison, and where many were left seriously injured. The strike was back on again – and by the time it finished in the October of ’81, Sands was dead – and so were another nine protestors. It was called off when the government effectively gave in to all the striker’s demands – but declined to give any formal recognition of political status.
McQueen states baldly: “History inevitably repeats itself. Lots of people have short memories. What do we have today? Abu Graib prison, rendition flights, Guantanamo Bay, and an on-going war in Iraq. I could have made a feature-length film about any of those subjects, but I wanted to make one about what’s going on here”
On the agony of a hunger strike “which, if you think about is, is simply a protracted suicide”, he says: “I was struck by the fact that the one thing that a child can do to fight back against the authority of its parents or at school, is to refuse to eat. You’ll be told ‘You are not leaving the room until you at what is on the plate in front of you’, but if you are strong enough…well, we’ve all been through that, haven’t wee?”
There are several clips of politicians of the day woven into the narrative of the film (“including a couple of Mrs. Thatcher. They are in the public domain, so no consent was needed to use them – I remember that when that woman came on the TV screen in our house, the set was firmly switched off. My parents couldn’t stand her”.) but the first twelve minutes of Hunger are almost completely speech-free. McQueen uses natural sound, “and that to me is the essence of cinema, letting the story unwind that way. Silent cinema could do that. I’ve used things like the noise of a car engine, the slow burn as a man takes a drag on a lit cigarette, the running of water, the drip of a tap. It’s a long time before anyone speaks!”
But later in the film there’s a powerful conversation between Bobby Sands and a Catholic priest, when the prisoner reveals to his visitor what he intends to do. “I knew I was taking a chance there”, says McQueen, “because it’s one conversation, with one camera angle, and two actors going through their dialogue. They did the take – which is over twenty-two minutes long – in one go. I was amazed. But then, when you have actors like Michael Fassbinder – as Sands – and Liam Cunningham as Father Dominic Moran, you know that you can trust them. It was more of a case of – would they trust me? After all, I’m this artist, and not a film director by profession.
“I wanted this meeting to look like a Wimbledon Final – the ball going to and fro. Or a Frazier – Ali fight in the ring, with punches being aimed. Blow after blow. I honestly don’t know about making any more films – I’m not that passionate about it, I’m not in love with the medium, to be honest. Creativity ought to be about ideas, I believe, not the medium that it serves. I think that I am, basically, going to find it extremely hard to find a story which involves me and energises me, and about which I can feel completely passionate. I don’t know. We’ll see. It’s a definite ‘maybe’. I’ve now got a Hollywood agent – but I don’t think that they’ll be hearing a lot from me!
“So you won’t find me working for a major studio, be very certain of that. It’s not about money – it’s about being asked to compromise, and that’s one thing that I never ever do! Never. I want to have my own say on the final cut and look of any film that has my name on it – what’s the point, otherwise?”
Yes, he “most certainly” went to the Maze, “and while we got lot of co-operation from the authorities, we weren’t allowed to film there. Not in the H blocks. However, I felt that it was absolutely essential that we filmed in Northern Ireland, with an Irish cast and crew. What became immediately apparent were the vivid memories that people have of The Troubles, and (a bit like Kennedy’s assassination) where they were and what they were doing when the announcement of Sands’ death came through. There were a lot of stories told on the set – many of them very bitter. No, I didn’t ant to meet with the Sands family – I don’t think that would have served any good purpose at the time. But they have now seen the film, and I believe that they approve of how Bobby is played and portrayed.
“Nothing can prepare you for visiting a prison. There’s a ‘feel’ to it, a special smell that is distinctive and peculiar to the place. The noises are all different. And when you come out after a visit, you feel – well, I did -profoundly depressed. And that’s just after a few hours. Prisoners – and the guards – have to go through that 24/7 for years on end”.
There are several brutal and explicit scenes in the film – the riot and disobedience sequences look horribly real. The dreadful toll that the hunger strike takes on Bobby Sands’ body and slight frame is graphic. Were there any injuries on the set? “A few, nothing major” says McQueen, “but when you get powerful subject matter like this and very strenuous actions are required, actors aren’t faint-hearted. They throw themselves into it. They have levels of energy which you can only wonder at. Did I help them? You’ll have to ask the guys – all I could do as to give them the reassurance that I was happy with what they were doing. They’re like highly trained racehorse, you know – they know precisely what to do and when to do it – and then they still managed feats of beautiful spontaneity. Michael Fassbender did indeed go on a diet – but it was carefully controlled and medically supervised. There was no real danger in what he did, but we had to look after him every step of the way. “
He doesn’t want to take sides, he says. “This is not a pro-IRA film, although I know some misinformed people will call it that. Neither is it pro-establishment. Far from it. I just believe that there are rarely people in this world who are all, 100 per cent of them, bad. People just do extraordinarily unexpected things in extraordinarily unexpected times and places.”
So McQueen’s philosophy is? “How many weeks have you got? I suppose, boiled down it is that you ant to grab people’s attention for while, and disarm them. So I’d say ‘Take a risk – what have you got to lose?’ It is vitally important that you make decisions in life that you hope will be for the better. So, well, go on – make the effort!”
He says: “I want the screen, in effect, to be a massive mirror. When you’re looking at that, you are really looking at yourself – and sometimes you may not always like what you see. I’d like audiences to realise what we are as a nation, and what we have done over the years. Cinema, it seems to me, has a power that is beyond purely being entertaining…”