Steve McQueen’s marathon documentary divides Cannes

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British director Steve McQueen premieres his four-and-a-half-hour documentary at Cannes

Eyelids grew heavy and went numb on Thursday at a four-and-a-half-hour screening of Steve McQueen's documentary on Amsterdam during World War II, which Cannes critics either applauded or panned.

The director of the -winning “Twelve Years a Slave” tells the story of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam — a city where he now lives — without a single shot of archival footage.

Instead, he films people in their homes and scenes around the city, while a narrator, without emotion, recounts the horrors that took place at a time when the Netherlands had one of the highest rates of Jewish deaths in Europe .

Most of the documentary, “Occupied City”, was filmed during the Covid lockdown, and images of boarded-up stores, announcements of curfews, and protests, at times, play as a backdrop to the World War II narrative.

The connection between the past and the present is objective.

“It's about living with ghosts and merging past and present,” McQueen told Variety magazine.

However, the long museum-installation style documentary had many audience members nodding their heads. More than two dozen left before the 15-minute intermission, while others did not return for the second half.

Some critics emphasized the monumental project and its novel approach, with Deadline calling it “one of the great WWII-themed films”, while others called it “numbing”.

Variety said, “This movie is a test, and you feel that way almost from the opening moments.”

“It's like listening to 150 encyclopedia entries in a row. Who did McQueen make this movie for?

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“Occupied City” is inspired by a written by McQueen's fellow historian Bianca Stigter: “Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940–1945).

McQueen shot 36 hours of film for the project over years.

McQueen said in an interview with IndieWire, “It wasn't a matter of wanting to lengthen something.” “It was a case of wanting to do something right.”

McQueen said, “This film is as much about the present as it is about the past.”

“Unfortunately, we never seem to learn from the past. Things move us forward,” he said, referring to the rise of the far-right in modern times.