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Set almost entirely within the “H Block” of Northern Ireland’s Maze prison during the 1981 hunger strike led by 27-year-old Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands, Steve McQueen’s Hunger is a biopic not in the biographical sense but rather the biological one. Indeed, Sands himself (played with remarkable physical and psychological intensity by actor Michael Fassbender) does not even appear until one-third of the way through the film’s 96 minutes, by which point McQueen, a British artist directing his first feature-length film, has already introduced us to the bone and tissue of the Maze’s other officers and inmates — men whose very bodies serve as objects of protest or as the government’s last line of defense. In the process, McQueen takes the heavily politicized subject of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and returns it to an elementally human level.

“It’s a situation similar to what we’re living right now,” said McQueen during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “We have a financial crisis, which is steeped in politics, but if someone loses their job, one has to deal with it not in a political way but a human way. When you’ve got prisoners in the H Block and a prison officer who has to deal with that situation, it’s his job, and therefore, as human beings, you have to look at it on that side, too. This was one of the well-paid jobs going on in Belfast at a time of low employment. To feed the family, you conform to some kind of situation of violence and ritual, and within that you get hurt. You become a victim of it as well.”

A tall, stocky figure who shows up for our interview wearing the same red suede sneakers (but not the Yamamoto skirt) in which he recently graced the back page of the New York Times men’s fashion magazine, McQueen is quick to place some distance between Hunger and the acclaimed film-related gallery installations for which he won the Turner Prize in 1999, at the age of 30. One of those, titled Deadpan, featured McQueen himself in an homage to the famous collapsing-house gag from Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Another, Drumroll, was the result of McQueen attaching three video cameras to an oil drum, which he then rolled through the streets of Midtown Manhattan.

“It’s a different thing altogether, because for me, art is poetry, and not everybody understands poetry,” he says. “But everyone understands a story, and also everyone can tell you a story, which sounds simple, but it’s amazing. What poetry is as far as art is concerned, for me, is that you’re creating the form with language — so half a paragraph could be the whole bloody universe. And film for me is the novel, where it’s linear, it’s a journey, it’s a story.”

Still, McQueen’s visual primacy is evident throughout Hunger, particularly in the film’s first half, which unfolds as a series of spare but exactingly detailed wide-screen compositions (an aspect ratio he decided upon after viewing one of Monet’s horizontal Water Lillies canvases in a Japanese museum): A guard’s bloodied knuckles seek relief in a soothing basin; a prisoner’s hand spreads human waste across the wall of a tiny cell. Dialogue is almost nonexistent, save for Margaret Thatcher’s disembodied voice wafting through TVs and radios, refusing to afford Sands and his fellow “nonconforming prisoners” the political (as opposed to criminal) status they seek. “I feel that when you show a little, you show the universe,” McQueen says. “It’s a prompt for bigger things outside the frame, and that’s what people respond to. If you show them everything, there’s nowhere for them to go. So that’s what that was about — making anything and everything essential and sensual, so that there’s a physical reaction, as well as a visual reaction.”

Then, from a desert of words to an ocean of them, Hunger arrives at an astonishing scene between Sands and his priest (Liam Cunningham), who challenge each other’s intractable positions on Sands’ planned strike during 22 minutes of back-and-forth dialogue, 17 of them staged as a single static shot of the two men seated at a table in profile. “I wanted a situation where two people were talking to each other, there was an action and a reaction, there was an intimacy,” says McQueen, who likens the encounter to one of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe’s relentless Wimbledon Finals. “By doing that, and by [D.P. Sean Bobbitt] backlighting them and making them in silhouette, the sound became much more important than the image. I push the audience away by doing that, of course, but what they do is they invest, they move forward, and their ears become sharper and their eyes become more attuned.”

Finally, in its devastating conclusion, Hunger abandons both words and bodies, as McQueen’s camera seems to adopt the perspective of Sands’ own spirit, fluttering about his hospital room as his emaciated corpse lays gasping for breath. “I always saw it as a river,” McQueen says of the film’s tripartite structure. “The first part, you’re floating down the river on your back, and you’re getting an understanding of your surroundings. In the second part, what happens is it becomes a rapid, all of a sudden — your images are fractured, disturbed. And then the last thing, of course, is the waterfall — a loss of gravity. That scene [at the end] where the camera is moving around — for me, that was like a balloon trying to leave the room. He wants to leave but it isn’t time for him to leave yet.”

Born in London to West Indian parents, McQueen showed an early aptitude for art making, eventually studying at both the Chelsea College of Art and Design and Goldsmiths College. “Some people could run. Some people could write. Some people could box. I could draw,” he says. But he only really discovered cinema in his 20s, while dating a Swiss girl who liked to go to the movies.

“Of course, in London at that time, there were these great repertory cinemas,” McQueen recalls. “So I saw a lot of classics on film. There were amazing programs — you could go to the movies and see all of Buñuel, Godard, all the classics. And also to see how people did things in different cultures — how people fell in love in Taiwan, in France, in Germany, in America; how people ate breakfast — it was wonderful. That was the most stimulating time of my life, watching those films.”

A brief sojourn to America and the film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts soon followed, which McQueen derisively refers to as his “three-month sentence.” “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,” he says, citing a lack of freedom and experimentation in the NYU curriculum as the primary source of his discontent. “Don’t get me wrong, it was very hard. It was almost like a Chinese circus — when you came out, you could do the splits and everything. But you’re one of a million; you seem like everyone else. There’s no individuality. I don’t think film schools are a very good place for people to learn about filmmaking. Just get on the set.”

Having successfully followed his own advice, with a trove of film-festival prizes (including the Camera d’Or for best first feature at Cannes) to show for it, McQueen says he’s eager to continue working in the commercial cinema, even as he prepares a solo exhibition to be featured as part of this year’s Venice Biennale.

“A lot of people are interested in making a film with me, but there’s no point to rush into something,” he says. “I think it’s one of those things where one has to take time and see what happens. I’m still in Hunger mode.” McQueen mulls the thought for another moment, then adds, “I don’t know about it being like a Terrence Malick situation — or Kubrick — because I don’t want to be too precious about things. It’s film, for god damn. It’s life. Life is precious, but at the same time, if you don’t do anything, nothing ever happens.”