Page last updated at 17:38 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 18:38 UK

Hunger's forceful look at Ireland

By Razia Iqbal
Entertainment reporter, BBC News, in Cannes

British movie Hunger has opened at the Cannes Film Festival to positive reviews.

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in Hunger
Fassbender went on a medically monitored crash diet to play Sands
Directed by Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen, it takes an uncompromising look at the last six weeks in the life of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

For six weeks in 1981, Sands went without food in an action initiated to demand special status.

IRA prisoners wanted to be treated as political prisoners, not criminals.

The demand was given short shrift by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said there was "no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence".

"There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence."

After 66 days without food, Sands died at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland at the age of 27.

A terse statement from the Northern Ireland Office read: "Mr Robert Sands, a prisoner in the Maze, died today at 1:17am."

Attended by his family, he had been in a coma for 48 hours before being pronounced dead by medical staff.

Struggle

His story, which had dominated papers and news bulletins for two months, stuck firmly in the mind of an 11-year-old living in West London.

That child was McQueen, who went on to win the Turner Prize in 1999, beating Tracey Emin and her notorious stained, unmade bed.

Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender
Hunger opened the Un Certain Regard section at this year's festival
The artist and film-maker says he never forgot the story of the Republican prisoner's struggle.

"There was this man called Bobby Sands whose image appeared on TV with a number underneath it," he recalls.

Now McQueen has turned the story into a film, his first feature, that opened the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday night.

One scene in the film is likely to dominate people's minds - a conversation between Sands and a Catholic priest about the decision to go on hunger strike.

Filmed in one continuous 10- minute take, it was shot on the first day of filming in Northern Ireland and took actors Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham four attempts to complete.

McQueen likens the interplay of these two key characters to Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe's legendary Wimbledon finals of the same era.

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Director Steve McQueen in action on the set of Hunger

Unsettling

"The audience was sat there not knowing which side to go with, not knowing who was going to have the advantage or disadvantage.

"They, in some ways, would be involved in the conversation just as much as the characters were."

Liam McMahon in Hunger
Liam McMahon (below right) plays another hunger striker in the film
As the film reaches its conclusion, the audience's experience becomes more and more unsettling.

Shots of Sands' skeletal figure, ravaged by hunger and covered in sores, are some of the most challenging in recent memory.

Fassbender went on a medically monitored crash diet to film the scenes, much to the horror of those around him.

"After I started putting weight back on, my doctor told me that the last time I'd been in, the receptionist came up to him and said 'he's really ill isn't he? He's dying of cancer or something,'" he recalls.

"It was weird, because I was kind of happy when I heard that."

By focusing so heavily on the story of Sands and his fellow hunger strikers, the film is likely to face accusations of being partisan.

McQueen, though, says that is "not his point", adding he is interested in the "dilemma" of people using their bodies as a political weapon.

Tensions

"As a film-maker, what one wants to do is raise those sorts of questions," he says.

"The universal subject which I'm interested in is someone who, in order to be heard, doesn't eat."

Bobby Sands
Sands died at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland in May 1981
Fassbender agrees there are modern parallels to Sands' story in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

The idea of using the body as a political weapon, meanwhile, has been used to devastating effect in the Middle East, London and New York.

But he hopes the film will not renew old tensions in Northern Ireland.

"There's a fantastic atmosphere up there at the moment," says the actor, whose mother comes from the coastal town of Larne in Country Antrim.

"It's really on the road to mending all those years of strife and troubles."

While tackling such a weighty subject might have proved daunting for many first-time directors, McQueen enjoyed the challenge.

"Sometimes its great to be that little bit naļve in what you do, the reason being you have no fear," he says.

Additional reporting by Mark Savage.


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