Thursday, May 15, 2008

Steve McQueen opening Cannes Film Festival arthouse Movies

Steve McQueen

"When I was in art school, I wanted to be in film school. When I was in film school I wanted to be in art school," says Steve McQueen, who now comes full circle - an artist taking his film to the world's biggest film festival. As we speak, French subtitles are being hurriedly added to Hunger, his drama set in the Maze prison during the weeks Bobby Sands and nine other republican prisoners went on hunger strike. Of course, McQueen has made films before. He won the Turner prize in 1999, in part for his video Deadpan, in which he recreated a legendary Buster Keaton stunt, standing still in front of a building as it collapsed around him. He has filmed New York from inside barrels (Drumroll), ventured two miles inside a South African goldmine (Western Deep), and far into the Democratic Republic of Congo (Gravesend). None of them count as features though, which means that Hunger will be in the running for the best first film award.

McQueen explains that, when he was 11, he had something like a coming-of-age moment watching the news in spring 1981. There were the hunger strikers and, closer to his home in Ealing, the Brixton riots. A picture of Bobby Sands, the first of the strikers to die, has stuck with him ever since: "It was always in my head, that image." Hunger will now join an ever-growing canon of films about the Troubles, which have, in recent years, tended towards docu-drama - the urge to lay down history or, in some instances, to correct it. That, McQueen says, is not what he was going for. "I just want to examine what is at stake here. Why would you put yourself on the line in such a way - in the most painful way - for your beliefs? Where have you got to?" He was struck by the idea of the unshakeable convictions of young men (Sands was 27 when he died): "That feeling of youth and the feeling of being right, the feeling of that kind of passion, really."

Does he think the film will be controversial? "It's called the Troubles for a reason. It's troubling - it continues to be troubling," McQueen says. He's more interested in his audience than the press, and talks with a total and sincere respect about the people who watch his work. For him, films - art or movies, what's the difference? - act as a mirror. "What gets projected on to the surface of the screen is the audience's reflection. Do you agree with what Bobby Sands did? If you do, there is always doubt. If you don't, there is doubt. It's a difficult thing to think about. And that's why film-makers should be making films."

Others in the McQueen camp seem more jittery about the film's likely reception. Ken Loach took a lot of criticism when The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme d'Or in 2006, but Steve McQueen OBE may prove a trickier target. He was the UK's official war artist in Iraq. (He is still furious that his stamps featuring British soldiers killed in action have not gone into production: "The Royal Mail still haven't come back to me with a definite answer.") His films are reflective and resist simplification. The rights and wrongs of the hunger strikers are thrashed out in a moral argument between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham); McQueen likens it to a philosophical game of chess, or a McEnroe/Connors Wimbledon final.

Working on Hunger was the first time McQueen had been on a film set, or worked with a crew and actors: was it a difficult leap to make? Last year, he went to the Congo to make a film, he says. "Fifty kilometres into the bush with armed guards." Hunger was a breeze by comparison. "If you want a cup of tea, some geezer gives you one. Before you finish it, another guy takes it away. What's there to complain about?"
Cath Clarke

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