Steve McQueen is no newcomer to awards and acclaim. Hunger, his latest success and first feature won the Camera d’Or (the award for best first feature) at the Cannes Film Festival last May. In 1999, he was awarded the Turner Prize and will be representing Britain this year at the Venice Biennale. But the acclaim is well justified. Hunger, which screens in the Walker Cinema April 10-26, was made because McQueen wanted to create a film about “an extraordinary world that has become ordinary.” And so he has, in three distinct parts, created a different realm for viewers to enter in and experience the hunger strike of 1981.
Hunger is tactilely-visual, which at times makes the film hard to watch. In an article from the New York Times, McQueen said, “If you see a drop of rain on someone’s knuckle, you feel it because you know that physical sensation. That sensory experience brings you closer to an emotional one.” McQueen has mastered this experience he speaks of. In the opening of Hunger, a guard dips his hands-whose knuckle are covered in freshly opened-sores-in scalding hot water, as the camera pans up to his sullen eyes reflected in the mirror. There is nothing numb about this scene or the movie, for that matter.
Similar to the visuals, the component of sound in the film is absolutely remarkable. McQueen talked about the sound in Hunger in Issue 23 of Reverse Shot:
Reverse Shot: The aesthetic of the film overall is so striking, but perhaps most striking is the care put into the sound design.
Steve McQueen: I spoke to the sound recordist and told him that I wanted him to capture everything. If someone’s finger is tapping on the table, I wanted it. I wanted all the details. Sound, for me, was the most important part of the film because it fills the spaces where the camera just can’t go. A sound can give you the dimensions of a room. It can give you smell, it can give you tension. In some ways sound can travel itself into other areas of our senses, other areas of our psyche that unfortunately cannot be just viewed. Imagine you’re in a room with the lights switched off and you have to feel your way around a room. This is a chair, this is a table, this is a light switch. You have to use your other senses to figure out what you’re looking at. As you’re watching the piece, that’s what I wanted.
The sound design is certainly atmospheric, but it also becomes a bit unbearable at times, though in a paradoxically pleasurable way.
One can talk about the sounds of the baton banging on the plastic shields as being unbearable as such, but that’s what actually happened. It’s raised the tension of the prisoners, but the noise also was a way of rallying the guards. The sound passes on that tension to the audience. Your heartbeat races, your anxiety increases. It’s the perfect soundtrack.
Immediately after I viewed the film, there was nothing I could say, nothing I wanted to say. At that moment, it seemed that any movement, word, description, or analysis would in some way taint what I just experienced.
And so I walked back to my desk speechless and proceeded to lunch-an irony that was not lost upon me. Over the course of my break, I found myself unable to take my mind off of Hunger, an entrancement that extended into the weekend.
I spoke very little about Hunger besides a mere mention that I saw it. A friend asked over the weekend what I thought of the movie, since he had recently read a write-up. All I could say was “You simply need to see it.” For a moment I contemplated extrapolating, but refrained. “McQueen’s praise isn’t for nothing-he is doing something very right,” I said.
There exists a tremendously thin and seemingly tight line in making any remark about the movie. Because of the breathtaking pacing, composition, and camera movement (or lack thereof), it seems instinctual to say the movie is beautiful. But when you step back from your experience (I say experience because Hunger extends much farther than simply a film), you are appalled by the actions and plights of human kind.
Recently in an interview with McQueen, he mentioned how people are shocked when they see the brutality in Hunger, of reliving and remembering what happened in 1981. Not an attempt to justify the happenings both in 1981 and the replication in Hunger, McQueen reminds that events and brutality such portrayed in the film are still happening to this day. He brings up Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
After looking into the history of the Troubles and the 1981 hunger strike, I realized that background information is not necessary before watching Hunger. Because of the film’s structure and attention to every detail, every perspective, part of me thinks each viewer should go in empty handed. To have no prior knowledge of Hunger, of McQueen, of the 1981 hunger strike, the audience is able to then be completely immersed; let it be said, however, that in this day and age, it is impossible to have a completely primary experience. Regardless of how much or little you know, Hunger will be an experience that will be mulled over for some time after.
This said, what is interesting to note is that Hunger is McQueen’s first feature film (previously he was a gallery artist): You should also know that he is about the visceral rather than the technique (he attended the Tisch School for film but left because “It was full of all these rich kids who could afford the fees. It was nothing to do with talent.”) Lastly, you should know that Steve McQueen captures the essence of life and the essence of filmmaking that is lost upon so many and in watching Hunger, McQueen’s vision of history, of art, and of human kind is extended and leaves an imprint in the viewer.
Because of the immensely diverse responses I assume Hunger will create, I would like to offer up this place as a forum to discuss/share your reaction and thoughts on the film.
Hunger screens Friday and Saturday April 10, 11, 17, 18, and 25 at 7:30 pm and Saturday and Sunday April 11 and 26 at 2 pm in the Walker Cinema.