Neil Coppen

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The Hunger for Excellence


I am at a loss trying to write about Steve McQueen’s debut Camera d’Or winning film Hunger –and much has already been written on it. In a nutshell the film follows the death of an IRA hunger striker named Bobby Sands in Belfast’s claustrophobic maze prison in 1981.

McQueen, a visual artist, has a patient and poetic eye, an intuitive sense of how images work  alongside and against one another. Images with an accumulative cinematic clout that left me gasping. It was about twenty moments into the film that I had to press pause on the DVD and step outside to breathe and then sob.  Such emotion, while incited by the narrative events (and harrowing they are) was mixed with elation at the sheer artistry of it all.

Despite co-authoring the screenplay with Irish playwright Edna Walsh, Hunger employs very few words in its telling. The camera observes through a collection of static shots: the sallow skin of prisoners (luminous in blue winter light) contrasted against cell walls smeared in excrement. A fly stirring on a prisoners outstretched finger, a sprinkling of crumbs spilling on a warden’s lap then later the close up of a snow- flake melting on his bloodied knuckle. These insights, quiet and meticulously crafted are often interrupted by scenes of sickening movement–the camera hurtling us head first into a tunnel of baton wielding wardens.

 In many ways Hunger defies description, committing its visual poetry to the page feels like an act of plagiarism. McQueen has compared the film’s pacing and tempo to the flow of a river, permitting time for the water to flow and eddy—mesmeric– before tumbling over rock and rapid. We the audience are buoyed inexorably downstream (one can’t swim against history) we know its end, the waterfall that awaits.

 Fellow artist and film director Julian Schnabel’s work has, in the past, inspired similar forms of elation in me. Both Schnabel and McQueen, understand the potency of visual metaphor, treat each frame of celluloid as an artist would a canvas.

This is not to say words are discarded altogether, and in the mid-section of McQueen’s film, a theatrical mid-shot of about seventeen minutes in duration appears between prisoner Bobby Sands and a benign visiting pastor. They sit at a table facing each other, smoke coiling to the ceiling from their respective cigarettes. After the river-rapid chaos of the prior scenes it is a welcome breather. We are grateful for the stillness, seek solace in the music of the characters ping-pong exchange. The water eddies, turns and churns, we know it will run again, must run again, faster more furious then before.

 Hunger is a film that made me think about South African cinema, wonder why we still find ourselves in such a derivative place, wedged somewhere between Ozzie quirkiness and Hollywood sentiment. Why is it that we have not yet forged an authentic and quintessential (I cringe at the word) South African voice. Totsi and its predecessors– play straight to Hollywood’s glossy paws, painting local stories in the safe confines of a tried and tested formulae.  

I’m aware, if not increasingly insulted, by the counter argument of stop bashing Schuster and certainly not Gavin Hood, films that make money at the box office and find a local audience should be applauded. Be that as it may, I still long for the day when a film-maker as audacious and insightful as McQueen might rise from the music video befok masses.

Such a film-maker, I believe, is not lurking in the over-stuffed corridors of film schools like AFDA, nor are they a screenwriter who has learnt their trade by book and lectern. They are an artist by impulse and birth with equal reserves of vision and persistence, the patience to let their ideas take form and flight and wisdom to know that this seldom occurs over- night.

Film -making is a laborious and costly exercise, with producers seldom willing to take risks with a product that might bring them little return, this is not just true to South Africa (though we like to think so) but of the world.  No extraordinary and challenging piece of cinema is made without a struggle. McQueen we can be sure didn’t get the green-light just by attending one of two meetings.

 You would be forgiven for thinking I am applauding those who willingly commit financial suicide by sticking to their guns and creating they type of work that two lesbian nuns and orange might go to see. This is not so, while Hunger might be disturbing and difficult to watch, it is at the same time simple, compassionate and utterly compelling story- telling. It does not finish flailing in its own unfathomable intellect or artsiness nor will it require a PHD to unpick—though one can be certain that many a film school thesis will be written on it.

So just how is McQueen able to delve into Irish history and create a story that doesn’t feel like a thousand others we have previously seen on the subject? It’s not, I believe, that we are tired of seeing  movies focused on apartheid and South Africa’s history, just that we tired of seeing the same ones made time and time again. Most of these films fall into the trap of overwritten and overwrought polemic (perhaps Fugard is partly to blame). One thing Hunger avoids is political sermonising, rather presents its evidence in a fresh, honest and enlightening way (to see, really see for ourselves).

 The purpose of any great film is that it should be the cause of debate, reinvestigation. rigorous discussion. That it should remain with the viewer long after they have walked away from the experience. The issues delved into are always more complex than most film-makers like to think. The answers can’t be found snuggled in a stirring cinematic conclusion, a packaged pay off for our two hours attention. Perhaps McQueen’s relative inexperience in the medium is what liberated him to make his film as he envisioned it and why the superlative  ‘uncompromising’ is bandied about so often by critics when referring to his film.

It’s not that we are short on stories (both past and present) in South Africa, just short on “uncompromising” visionaries applying the time and insight to conceive them. Hunger took McQueen several years to make and he has recently stated that it’s unlikely he will make another film again. Despite the deluge of scripts that blockaded his door since the deserved Cannes victory of 2008, he fails to see the point in devoting such a hefty portion of one’s lifetime to making anything that isn’t completely necessary.

It makes me question just how ‘necessary’ a majority of our artistic output really is. How does it, if at all, contribute to how and what we see. The cinemas, libraries and theatres are collapsing beneath the weight of unessential, unnecessary fodder. The question we have to ask ourselves, before commencing on any artistic endeavour, is do we want contribute to this mudslide of mediocrity or challenge and counteract it with every available artistic thread of our being.

The will for excellence is one thing, the implementation of it, is another challenge all together.

 I have had the privilege of witnessing some very important and ‘necessary’ films in the last week , proof that McQueen is not alone in his extraordinary efforts. They are (in no particular order) Linha De Passe, Let the Right One in and Waltz with Bashir. 

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