Wednesday, October 1, 2008

New York Film Festival: Hunger

It's fascinating that Steve McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning black artist born and bred in a land that defines itself by "country first" (and is having its own faith shaken at a time when many young Brits are defining themselves as "Muslim first") would create a film that subtly uncovers his homeland's hypocrisy. For the British believe in "country first" only when that country is England, which is why Irish Republican nationalism (Ireland's own version of "country first") historically has been so offensive, thus brutally repressed. In contrast, America has always been a land of identity politics, defining our groups as "African-American," "Mexican-American," "Jewish-American," the "American" always second in importance. But in England, it's always "Anglo" first (McQueen is not "Caribbean-British" or "African-English"), an offensive veil that the Provisional IRA fought to rip away.

Since McQueen is first and foremost a prestigious visual artist, I expected the images in “Hunger,” his Camera d'Or-nabbing debut feature about the infamous hunger strike staged at Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in 1981 after leader Bobby Sands and his fellow inmates' special status as political prisoners was revoked, to be stunning. What I wasn't prepared for was an equally assured, mind-blowing sound design and stage-worthy script. The term "art film" has been batted around, posted like a sticky note to so many movies since the time of its conception that it's hard to type the two words together with a straight face. And yet “Hunger,” with all its visual, sonic and editing elements flowing together in harmony like a five-star, six-course meal, exemplifies the phrase. McQueen's film is a nuanced masterpiece that never flaunts its artistry, but uses it humbly to serve the all-important story.

Read the rest of my review at my Slant debut.

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