Unionists attacked a film about life on the H-blocks during the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike even before it was screened for the first time as part of the Cannes Film Festival last week.
The film, ‘Hunger’, opened a section of the cinema festival which encourages innovative works and young talent.
The film stars Irish actor Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands. McQueen said in his director’s statement that he wanted to capture what it was like to hear, see, smell and touch H Block in 1981 and convey something which could not be found in books or archives.
“When I was a child growing up in 1981, aged about 11 or 12, there were three things that influenced me: the Brixton riots, Tottenham winning the FA Cup - which was fantastic - and Bobby Sands,” he said.
“His image appeared on the TV screen virtually every night with a number underneath it and it stayed with me... that passion and that level of confrontation to die on hunger strike.
“This memory and this opportunity drew me to find out more about him and I thought it could be a powerful film.”
The award-winning artist and film-maker from London has told how at one point he conceived of the entire film without dialogue, before deciding on a brief period without speech followed by “an avalanche”.
McQueen, who had never written a script before, described the research process of speaking with ex-prisoners, prison warders and priests who had visited the H-Blocks as “probably the heaviest experience of my life emotionally”.
“What became apparent was people had been touched by this story and it was quite remarkable how everyone knew where they were when Bobby Sands died during the hunger strike,” McQueen said.
The screenplay for Hunger is by Enda Walsh, the Irish playwright of Disco Pigs , Bedbound and The Walworth Farce. Walsh says: “Very simply, it made me question what I believed in in the world. I acknowledge and respect these people’s belief in something. It is this that should have universal relevance.”
However, the DUP’s Gregory Campbell tabled a motion at the London parliament against the film. The DUP man attacked McQueen and the film’s production company, Channel 4.
“They were not, in any one way, attempting to ‘make their world better’ as has been claimed. Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers were criminals not idealistic young revolutionaries.
“Senior IRA criminals are not deserving of the hagiography that Channel 4 seems to be dispensing,” he said.
Sinn Féin Assembly member and former Hunger Striker Raymond McCartney urged Campbell to view the film.
“As Republicans remember the 27th anniversary of Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O Hara’s death tomorrow, the legacy of the hunger strikers remains a symbol of resistance around the world.
“The legend of Bobby Sands has lasted the test of time, far greater than Margaret Thatcher or her counterpart General Pinochet.
“I would urge people, especially Gregory, to watch the film when they get the opportunity rather than knee jerk reactions.”
Prior to its premiere in Cannes, Hunger had been sold to just one distributor, the Paris-based company MK2, which pre-bought the French rights.
Given the positive critical reaction to the film at Cannes, it has been sold to a number of other countries in the past two days.
The buyers include distributors in Australia, New Zealand, Greece, Portugal, Belgium and Luxembourg.
A number of companies are competing to acquire the US rights, and the film’s sales agent, Icon International, anticipates that a US deal will be closed this week.
* Prominent republican Bernadette McAliskey is set to take legal action against the makers of a planned film about her life.
Details of the biographical film project, The Roaring Girl, emerged this week at the Cannes Film Festival. Filming is said to be starting this autumn.
The former Mid-Ulster MP and civil rights leader instructed her lawyers to initiate proceedings after reports that she had co-operated on the project.