'Hunger' first course for Cannes sidebar

Tells story of IRA activist Bobby Sands

CANNES -- This year's Un Certain Regard sidebar is set to get off to a visceral and controversial start with the unspooling of Steve McQueen's "Hunger," giving festivalgoers an early punch in the guts.

The no-holds-barred movie details the story of Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican Army activist who was voted onto the U.K. Parliament while on hunger strike in prison for the possession of firearms in 1981. He starved himself to death.

It is bound to court controversy and will likely attract a large amount of coverage from the international press. The film is already attracting buzz among industryites because it marks the big-screen debut for Turner Prize-winning artist McQueen.

Film 4, the movie arm of U.K. broadcaster Channel 4, developed and majority-funded McQueen's movie and will be hoping it scoops the Camera d'Or for the first-time director.

"As a piece of cinema it is very different, and so far it appears to be extremely powerful for people as a cinematic experience," producer Laura Hastings-Smith said. "I think a lot of thought has gone into this project, and it is an interpretation of what went on. But I think we all feel (as filmmakers) that it is a film we can speak up for and stand behind."

She said producing the movie with a first-time helmer more accustomed to winning prizes for his paintings than wielding a camera was a refreshing change.

"It was a learning curve, but Steve was very upfront about that. He sat down with the actors and said, 'I've never done this before,' and it was incredibly disarming. As Steve says, 'If you are honest with people, then they will help and make things better,' " Hastings-Smith said.

Other high points in the eclectic sidebar are likely to come from veteran Raymond Depardon's documentary "La Vie Moderne" (The Modern Life), which portrays peasant farming life in contemporary France, and James Toback's documentary about the notorious bad boy of boxing "Tyson," featuring extensive archival fight footage and interview with Iron Mike.

Thomas Clay's Bangkok-set "Soi Cowboy" -- about a fat, white Viagra-popping man embroiled in a sexual relationship with a young Thai prostitute looking for a way out of the red light district -- will likely set chins wagging, while Andreas Dresen's sex-after-60 drama "Wolke 9" (Cloud 9) could provide industry pillow talk.

Also attracting anticipatory buzz is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's slice of Japanese family life "Tokyo Sonata," about a family full of secrets, and Amat Escalante's "Los Bastardos," which revolves around two young illegal immigrants from Mexico working in the U.S. who are hired by a man to murder his wife.