Monday, 14 July 2014

Steve McQueen and Sean Dunne: Two Directors You May Be Missing Out On

Movies have always been such an incredible source of awe and wonder for me. They can tell stories in a visual way that, arguably, books cannot, or show us worlds that simply don’t exist or cannot be created physically. Even back in 1902 Georges Méliès was showing the world the magic possible through cinema with A Trip to the Moon. Today with CGI and special effects the scope of movies is beyond imagining, but some of the most powerful features still wow us simply by telling a truly compelling story. It’s a rare thing today to find a film that is untouched by overzealous CGI, almost as if some directors have forgotten the primary objective of a film is to tell a story.

Steve McQueen and Sean Dunne are two directors that haven’t forgotten what this means. They use compelling shots and interesting characters to pull the viewer into a story that’s a part of a world beyond imagining. What else is cinema for if not that very purpose?

It was only a few months ago that I saw 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s third feature length film. You may be familiar with this film which chronicles the twelve years that Solomon Northup spent in captivity on southern plantations, but I would bet you have not yet seen Hunger or Shame, McQueen’s first two feature length films. Both are equally as stunning and powerful as 12 Years a Slave, characterized by uncomfortably long shots courtesy of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt [The Place Behind the Pines (2012), Oldboy (2013)]. Each film takes you on a journey you might not have signed up for as you began to feel what the characters feel: pain, shame, hunger, etc. There’s a reason his first two films are named after feelings; it’s truly impossible to sit through them without empathizing with characters that are struggling to make it from day to day with burdens most of us are blessed not to have.

What I find so mesmerizing about Steve McQueen films is his ability as a director and writer to take me out of my comfort zone and force me to experience what his protagonists are going through. Every shot, every piece of dialogue, and every character has a specific purpose that adds to the overall structure of the movie. You won’t find any meaningless car chases, gunfights or explosions in these films. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good action movie, but those types of scenes really only serve to put you on the edge of your seat. They don’t advance the story or develop characters; it’s all shock value. McQueen films are just pure, unadulterated visual storytelling. I should also add that Michael Fassbender [300 (2007), X-Men: First Class (2011), Prometheus (2012)] stars in all three films, so if you’re a fan, you’re in for a treat.

Another recent discovery for me is director Sean Dunne, a documentary filmmaker who focuses on telling the gritty stories of people who are often stigmatized by society. I first discovered his short documentary American Juggalo only last week. Since then I’ve binge-watched several other short documentaries and his full length documentary Oxyana, which tells the story of the small town of Oceana in West Virginia that has been plagued by the illegal oxycontin drug trade. In an interview with Carson Daly, Dunne described what he is trying to accomplish with his films:

“I think what I’m trying to do is make films that people can find a little bit of themselves in, find something relatable in there, and, if you can watch Rocky hustle people in bowling, or watch this guy with the world largest record collection, or a traveling country musician, or an oxycontin pill head; if you can empathize with these people and relate with them then I feel like I’ve done my job.”

Documentaries are to cinema what biographies are to writing: some are dressed up and really only focus on the bright and shiny side of something, but some show you the ugly underbelly of the world we live in, exposing our flaws and forcing us to reflect inward on who we really are. Dunne makes gritty documentaries that don’t pull punches; you’re going to intimately get to know the subject and relate to them on a level you might not have thought possible. There really is something special about a documentary that makes you realize that people you might have looked down on are still human beings, most with families, friends, jobs, bills, and all the other responsibilities we all have. In other words, we’re simply all people divided by differences that are mostly superficial. These short documentaries will strip all that bias away and show you that some of the strangest characters out there really aren’t all that different from you.

I hope I’ve inspired you to seek out directors and filmmakers who do more than spend 70% of their budget on CGI. Don’t get me wrong, I love a terrible Michael Bay film as much as the next guy, but I don’t want storytelling to fall to the wayside in the wake of the digital era, especially when there’s so much that can be accomplished with great actors and a good script.

Who are some directors you feel might be undervalued today? What films do you think do a great job with visual storytelling? Let us know with a comment below or share with us on twitter @swagger_media.


  1. Steve McQueen, like from The Great Escape right? What a great movie. Sweet motorcycle jumps.

    1. That's actually a different, but equally talented, Steve McQueen, and he sure did have some sweet motorcycle jumps in The Great Escape!