CANNES, France (Reuters) - The director of a powerful film about the final days of Bobby Sands said he had not made a hero of the IRA prisoner whose death in a 1981 hunger strike made him one of the most prominent symbols of opposition to British rule in Northern Ireland.
"Hunger," the graphic, often brutal feature debut by British artist Steve McQueen, screened at the Cannes film festival late on Thursday and has impressed critics with its portrayal of the violence and horror of life in the notorious Maze prison.
Some predicted that the film would prove controversial because of what they saw as McQueen's sympathetic treatment of Sands, played by Irish actor Michael Fassbender.
"The sympathetic portrait within this excellent film will cause much debate, and outrage," wrote the Independent newspaper.
McQueen said the only controversy surrounding "Hunger" was one created by the media.
"If anyone comes out of there thinking that I'm thinking that Bobby Sands is a martyr should basically watch the film again and look and listen," he told Reuters in an interview.
Sands, convicted of firearms offences, was elected as a member of the British parliament during his hunger strike, ensuring worldwide media coverage of his death. His image still looks down from a giant mural on Belfast's Falls Road.
"In 'Hunger' there is no simplistic notion of 'hero' or 'martyr' or 'victim'," McQueen adds in production notes.
He said the film also portrays other inmates and a prison guard who is shot dead by the IRA. In a long, central scene, Sands debates the morality of the hunger strike with a priest.
McQueen, who has won the Turner art prize, drew parallels between abuses by British authorities in the Maze prison and the treatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
"The fact of the matter is that history does repeat itself," said McQueen, who first conceived the idea of making a film about Sands before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The latter part of "Hunger" portrays what Sands went through during his 66-day hunger strike that resulted in his death, aged 27, in 1981.
Close-ups of bed sores and his decaying body are as difficult to watch as earlier scenes of cell walls smeared in feces and ritual beatings of inmates by riot police.
Fassbender lost around 15 kg through a strict diet of nuts, berries and sardines for weeks.
He said he was nervous playing such a controversial figure from Northern Ireland's recent past.
"It worries me very much," he told Reuters. "It worried me when I decided to do the project because all my relatives are up there," added Fassbender, who is from the Republic of Ireland but whose mother comes from the partitioned North.
"The last thing I want to do is be part of something that sparks up aggression," he said.
A 1998 peace agreement largely ended 30 years of violence in the province between minority Catholics seeking a united Ireland and the pro-British Protestant majority. The conflict killed more than 3,600 people.
Sands was the first of 10 Maze prisoners to die in the hunger strike, which they staged in order to win IRA prisoners political status.
Hundreds of prisoners had refused to wear prison clothing and used only blankets in what became known as the "dirty protest" because they smeared excrement on their cell walls.
(Editing by Paul Hoskins and Paul Casciato)
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