The last six weeks of the life of the Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands come under scrutiny in director Steve McQueen's The Hunger. (TIFF)

British director Steve McQueen didn't start out to make a movie about Bobby Sands, much less to lionize the IRA hunger striker.

His film Hunger, which won the Caméra d'Or at Cannes and the Gucci Award at Venice, is taking heat from critics who say he's making a hero out of the Irish Republican Army prisoner.

But McQueen, a winner of the Turner Prize for his video art, says that's a misinterpretation of his debut feature film.

"To me this film is not political. It's about people — again, it's about what happens to people in extraordinary situations, that's what I'm interested in," he told CBC Radio cultural affairs show Q in an interview aired Tuesday.

Hunger centres not just on Sands but on everything happening in the Maze prison in 1981, when IRA prisoners decided to starve themselves until they were granted status as political prisoners.


British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, shown on the catwalk in Paris this June, says he never forgot the TV images of the hunger strike, which happened when he was 11. (Jacques Brinon/Associated Press)

Sands, 27, who doesn't appear until a third of the way through the film, was the first to die, and his name became synonymous with the protest.

McQueen said he went to great lengths to present the humanity of everyone involved, from the prison officers to the strikers and even to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"I have as much sympathy with the prison officers as I do with the blanket men. That's what this movie is about. It's about what people do to survive daily, mentally, physically," he said.

Images of hunger strike remembered

McQueen was 11 years old and growing up in London when the story of the hunger strikers was emblazoned across British TV screens on a nightly basis.

"It was a very strange phenomenon for me that in order for someone to be heard that person stopped eating," he recalled.

"Every day an image would appear on television and underneath that would appear a number [the number of days the strikers had gone without food] and every day that number would go up."

He said those images stayed with him.

"It was a sort of coming-of-age situation — how much the environment around me was in some ways questioned," he said.

The question at the heart of the film for him is one of morality and mortality.

"This film is in some ways is about the reasons to live and the reasons to die or put yourself in danger of dying. It's almost like putting your cards on the table and sort of, acting it out," McQueen said.

The film includes a 20-minute conversation by Sands and a priest that explores issues of morality and martyrdom — a conversation that didn't actually happen.

But McQueen said he wanted the audience to hear "the whole argument."

"One has to take the time to present the argument in its totality. To a certain extent, to challenge the audience and to challenge the perception of why people do what they do."

McQueen's Hunger made its Canadian premiere this weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival.