“HUNGER,” the first feature film by the British artist Steve McQueen, recounts the final weeks of Bobby Sands, the imprisoned Irish nationalist who died in 1981, 66 days into a hunger strike. But the movie, which does not examine the arc of Sands’s life or the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is far from a conventional docudrama or issue movie. Instead it is something starker and more precise, with a single-mindedness to match that of its subject, a man who decides to starve himself to death.
Recreating the brutal conditions in which that decision was made and the harrowing physical decline that followed, “Hunger” is a visceral film with a philosophical bent, a meditation on will and endurance, on the human body as the ultimate site of protest.
“It’s the whole idea of the body as a weapon,” Mr. McQueen said. “If that’s all you have, how do you use it?”
“Hunger,” which opens in New York on March 20, won the Camera d’Or, the prize for best first feature, at the Cannes Film Festival last May. But Mr. McQueen, 39, is hardly a newcomer to filmmaking, even though his films and videos have until now been shown in galleries and not theaters. A star of the art world, he won the prestigious Turner Prize in 1999 and is representing Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale.
With “Hunger,” set almost entirely within the notorious Maze Prison near Belfast, Mr. McQueen wanted to make a film about “an extraordinary world that has become ordinary,” he said. It unfolds in three distinct movements, each with its own style.
The first section evokes the sickening atmosphere in the maximum-security H-blocks (so named because of their shape) during the so-called dirty protests, when members of the Irish Republican Army who were demanding recognition as political prisoners took to pouring urine under cell doors and smearing excrement on the walls.
The second act, making up for the near wordlessness of the first, is all talk, capturing an intimate conversation about the morality of suicide between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham), much of it presented in a single, static 17-minute take. In the final third silence takes over again as Sands begins his hunger strike, his body wasting away and his mind increasingly prone to hallucinations. Mr. Fassbender appears naked in these scenes — Sands refused to wear a prison uniform — and lost about 40 pounds during filming, under medical supervision.
The contemporary significance of “Hunger” — an unflinching depiction of prison brutality, complete with ritual beatings and humiliations — is not lost on Mr. McQueen. “It happened 27 years ago,” he said, speaking last fall while in town for the New York Film Festival. “But it has just as much relevance to what was happening with Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.”
He was quick to add, though, that he started thinking about “Hunger” in 2003. The film’s preoccupations ultimately seem less political than existential. Mr. McQueen sidesteps the customary views of Sands as a martyr and a terrorist and regards him above all as an enigma.
The initial spark was a powerful memory of encountering news reports of the hunger strike on television as an 11-year-old, before he grasped its political meaning. “It made a big impression on me,” he said. “Behind the newsreader would be a photograph of a guy with a number beneath his name, and every day that number went up.”
Very little visual documentation exists of life in the H-blocks; Mr. McQueen found about 90 seconds of footage shot by a news crew. But he was determined to create a film so vivid in its details that it would register almost as a sense memory, an experience that would seem to “bring everything back” for viewers who had never set foot in a jail cell or heard of the hunger strike.
One strategy was to bring a tactile intensity to the imagery. “If you see a drop of rain on someone’s knuckle, you feel it because you know that physical sensation,” he said. “That sensory experience brings you closer to an emotional one.”
Mr. McQueen immersed himself in research, reading news accounts and books like David Beresford’s “Ten Men Dead.” (Sands was the first of 10 hunger strikers who perished.) Most useful of all was the week he and his screenwriter, the Irish playwright Enda Walsh, spent interviewing former I.R.A. inmates and prison officers.
“Usually people ask them the big questions,” Mr. McQueen said. “But I was more interested in the details you couldn’t find in the books. Like what’s it like waking up with maggots all over your body? What’s it like with all these bluebottles dancing around your cell? At what point do you get used to all the feces on the wall?”
With its you-are-there immediacy “Hunger” makes no bones about ignoring the bigger political picture. Margaret Thatcher is purely a disembodied nemesis, heard but never seen as she repudiates the prisoners’ demands. “She had to come in as vapor,” Mr. McQueen said. “I didn’t want to leave the H-block.”
He had envisioned a film that spoke almost exclusively without words. “When there’s too much talking in a movie, it sort of ruins your brain,” he said. But he came to realize the importance of not just hearing Sands explain his position but also having it tested by a worthy opponent. Mr. McQueen likened the face-off between Bobby and the priest to “Connors versus McEnroe at the Wimbledon final, two people wanting the same thing but wanting it differently.”
The sights and sounds in “Hunger” have the effect of concentrating the senses, a hallmark of Mr. McQueen’s work. The long, unblinking conversation harks back to his 2001 installation “7th November,” in which a man talks at length about the death of his brother over a single projected image of a scarred cranium.
The focus on the body can be traced to many of his shorts, from “Bear” (1993), which showed two men wrestling (one of them Mr. McQueen), to “Charlotte” (2004), in which Mr. McQueen’s fingers prod and pinch the wrinkled eyelid of the actress Charlotte Rampling.
Mr. McQueen, who has a likably gruff manner, is less than thrilled when people look for traces of the visual artist in “Hunger.” “It’s rubbish,” he said. “Are my camera sweeps a bit more dandylike? I could be a butcher making a movie.”
His gallery pieces, it’s worth noting, are more cinematic than what is commonly considered video art, and often even steeped in film history. (His best-known work, 1997’s “Deadpan,” in which he stands in front of a collapsing house frame, is a riff on Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill.”)
“I think first and foremost Steve has always been a filmmaker, not a video artist,” said Okwui Enwezor, a curator who has included Mr. McQueen’s work in the international contemporary art show Documenta. “ ‘Hunger’ does not depart from the intensity of Steve’s early work. It has distilled it, made it more taut and frighteningly poetic and devastating in equal measure.”
Mr. McQueen said: “The beautiful thing about film — it sounds so obvious and corny, but everyone could tell you a story. Not everyone knows contemporary art.”
“Hunger” is not his only recent attempt to reach a wider public. Appointed war artist by the Imperial War Museum in London, Mr. McQueen, who lives in Amsterdam, traveled to Iraq expecting to make a video. Instead he proposed a piece, called “Of Queen and Country,” that would take the form of official postage stamps featuring photographs of the war dead. (He produced a run for an exhibition, but the British postal service has declined to collaborate.) “It’s not pro-war,” he said of the project. “And it’s not antiwar.”
More than most artists, it seems, Mr. McQueen is reluctant to let his work be diminished by interpretation and analysis. It is hard to miss the overtones of Christian art and iconography in “Hunger,” especially in the Passion-like final act, but Mr. McQueen, without exactly disavowing the religious associations, shrugs them off.
“It’s a naked skinny guy dying — sort of unavoidable,” he said. “People mythologize it because that’s easier to digest.”
And to make “Hunger” a remotely easy film would have been a betrayal of the facts. “However you look at it, it’s a brutal act,” he said. “It takes a long time to die that way. Is there a worse way to die than starving yourself? I don’t know.”