For filmmaker Steve McQueen, the little-known tale of Solomon Northup — a freeborn 19th-century African American man kidnapped and sold into slavery before miraculously regaining his freedom — is a story as important as that of Holocaust victim Anne Frank. 

In his harrowing new drama 12 Years a Slave, which has earned widespread kudos at the Toronto International Film Festival, McQueen explores the complex nature of slavery and the institutionalized racism that propped up the U.S. slave trade. The British filmmaker discovered Northrup's 1853 memoir 12 Years a Slave through his wife, a historian.

"Each turn of the page was a revelation. I live in Amsterdam and Anne Frank is such a big part of that world. This book happened to have been written nearly 100 years before Anne Frank. It had such a grip on me, such a power, that I just had to make this film," he told reporters at a press conference in Toronto late Saturday morning.

With the U.S. having "a black president, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, the unfortunate situation with Trayvon Martin and also the 50th anniversary of March on Washington — with that kind of perfect storm, people are ready to receive and to look and reflect on the unfortunate recent past," he said.

Complexity of slavery

Conveying nuance and complexity in the characters as well as a wider, multifaceted depiction of slavery in the mid-1800s —for instance, featuring a former slave-turned-wife of a plantation owner in a key scene — was paramount.

Co-produced by Brad Pitt (who has a key cameo in the film), the movie is unsettling with its gut-wrenching brutality and violence, but these are woven together with scenes of moral dilemma, of hope and survival — all performed by a strong cast that was like a family, McQueen noted.

Having a "circle of trust" — said newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, who plays the tortured slave Patsey — helped the actors feel free to give their all in some of the film's most difficult and shocking scenes of  violence and cruelty, which include graphic whippings, hangings and assaults.

"It's not an easy thing to do," admitted actress Sarah Paulson, who appears as the vindictive wife of a sadistic and tormented plantation owner, portrayed by regular McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender.

"But it is very necessary to tell this story of Solomon, Patsey and the others. If I soft-pedaled, it wasn't going to do the story any favours."

It’s one thing to look at images of slavery and slave narratives, McQueen said, but "It's another thing to bring those images onto the movie screen."

"I think that's what’s a shock to audiences right now... I feel that's the power of cinema. That's why for me it's the best art form in the world," he said.

"You're presenting images, giving it life, giving it breadth… That's what I'm trying to do: present some truth onscreen."

Standout performance

The weight of the intense drama rests on the shoulders of stage and screen actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who stars as the title character.

"The vessel, for the audience, is Solomon Northup. Everybody in the audience is Solomon. What he goes through, you go through. That was always the key for me. That is the humanization of the story," McQueen said of 12 Years a Slave's lead role.

Ejiofor, who is also appearing at TIFF in the film Half of a Yellow Sun, is already being touted as a likely Oscar contender for his remarkable turn as Northup. 

"Making this film has been an extraordinary journey," Ejiofor said.

"I'm delighted right now. I'm thrilled. Anything else is gravy. To get here, to this point, with a film of this nature and to make the film we wanted to make, has been remarkable."

The Toronto International Film Festival continues through Sept. 15.

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12 Years a Slave's Alfre Woodard (from left), Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, director Steve McQueen and Sarah Paulson pose for a photo call at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Saturday. (Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)