As dawn broke on New Year's day 1981 over Europe's most secure jail, the Maze Prison, Republican prisoners had reached a point where they could "cry no more, curse no louder or pray no harder. For four years they had been protesting against being treated as criminals and they had come up against a brick wall. Morale was crumbling; prisoners were constantly cold, hungry and scared. Something drastic had to be done to break the deadlock and highlight their cause, something that would grab the attention of the world and let the British government know they were serious about their demand to be treated as political prisoners.

Something so horrifying and courageous that it would shock the world into realising that this was important to the prisoners. More important than life itself. This thing that everyone feared was a hungerstrike. "I feel myself that I have lived life to the full, in the sense of being at the edge of the deepest emotions that you can have, says Laurence McKeown, one of the two writers of H3 who was on hungerstrike in the H-Blocks for over seventy days and who survived when his mother intervened once he had gone into a coma.

The depth of these emotions and the humanity and humour he experienced during his sixteen years in the H-Blocks are what mark H3 as an authentic and moving depiction of one of the darkest periods in Irish history. "There are three things about this story that are surprising and which we wanted to portray in the film", says McKeown. "The first is the youth of the prisoners - they were all much younger than people realise - the average age of a prisoner on protest was 20 - and this is amazing when you think of how mature they had to be to make the decisions they made. Secondly, we wanted to show that the decision to go on hungerstrike was not taken lightly, but came after five years of protest and a lot of debate - prisoners did everything they could to avoid going on hungerstrike. And finally, the third and most important thing I remember about that time is the humour - despite everything, it's the humour and camaraderie that kept us going and I really wanted to show this. "Can you imagine trying to come up with a more dramatic story than this?" asks Juanita Wilson, one of the producers of the film.

"It has everything - conflict, poignancy, fear, emotion - but what we really love about the story is the humour and the humanity of the characters - no matter how bad their situation, it's the humour and friendship that carry the men through living hell. And Hell it was. For five years, four hundred Republican prisoners were confined to their cells, thrown together from all corners of the country and from all walks of life. You wouldn't share a pint with some of the people inside there, let alone a prison cell! jokes co-writer Brian Campbell, who always emphasises the human side of his seven-year experience in the Maze prison.

"The hard men didn't last long. Everyone had to pull together and work out a way to survive the regime. You just wouldn't have that degree of comradeship or friendship outside," agrees McKeown and ultimately it's that bond of friendship and commitment that the film celebrates. 'I felt a huge weight of responsibility in making this film,' says Les Blair, Director, 'we made every effort to be as authentic as possible. Scriptwriters are normally dismissed as soon as the script is approved, but these guys had far too much first-hand experience to be allowed off so lightly.' "All the great films that have inspired me are based on true events", says James Flynn, one of the Producers. "Great cinema needs to be based on great stories and this is one of the most powerful and dramatic stories to come out of Ireland this century. Casting a film with such a young cast proved the first challenge for the production team. Actors had to be young - yet they had to have lived life in order to be credible - and finding old heads on young shoulders is not easy. But extensive casting sessions throughout Ireland and Britain yielded a vast pool of new acting talent - from the streets of West Belfast to the corridors of RADA. The leading role, Seamus Scullion, who is the Officer Commanding in charge of the Hunger Strikes, was one of the last to be cast. "Seamus was a tricky character to cast as he has a quiet strength and authority - yet he has to be liked and respected by his peers - he still has to be one of the lads," explains Blair. "He has to overcome his own inner fears and question the strength of his commitment. Finding a twenty-four year old who has the maturity to portray all these qualities was difficult, but as soon as we saw Brendan's screen test, we knew we had found Seamus".

Most of the cast grew up in the north of Ireland and could draw on their experiences of the events portrayed in the film, and this lends weight to their performances. Brendan Mackey, who plays Seamus, was raised in a loyalist neighbourhood where the colour of your school uniform was reason enough for a thrashing from 'the other side'. "The two communities in the north have virtually no first hand experience of each other," says Mackey, "there is total segregation, even separate school buses. It's very difficult to grow up without prejudice when you never see a person from the other community until you're eighteen, until you leave school. You never make friends. The whole system is rotten, it doesn't allow the two communities to get to know each other." 'It was strange for me going home to tell my parents that I was working on a film about the H-Blocks and Bobby Sands.

Where I come from there is a very different attitude to that time, a completely different history in peoples' minds' Mackey explains. "I was pretty nervous about playing the role of Seamus but you have to be professional about it, you have to enter into the part. I started to sleep on the floor on a mattress to get the feel of it. The first time you walk into a cell is a frightening experience, even though you know you're not in there in the real sense it still sucks you in, that feeling of locked-in claustrophobia. When the actors arrived on the set of H3 they were greeted by a large, stark board with large black letters; COLD HUNGRY SCARED.

They undertook extensive research and locked themselves into the cells; maggots were left on the mattresses and they spent hours reflecting on the situation and finding the right emotions. "At first I found it hard to mix with the other lads" admits Mackey, "as I was raised in an area which was in the loyalist tradition, where the songs and symbols came from another reading of history, what could I sing to break the ice - loyalist ballads? That set me apart from the boys for a while but the mood shifted pretty quickly once we were thrown together on the set and we all got to know each other and pull together." "It's that sort of film", says Mackey.

"As actors, you need to be tuned in to each other if the cell scenes are to work, it's a confined space where you need to grasp what the other person is feeling and work off that. The commitment is inspiring, everyone has worked their guts out to make it work.' This film is about the unravelling of a psychological war, every second, every minute, every day, no let up, it's very intense' says Blair, who brought his signature sense of realism to the film. The prison officers are led by the chilling yet understated Macken, played by Gerry Doherty, who was able to draw on his own first hand experience of life inside prison for the role. After spending eleven years in prison in Northern Ireland, he is unrelenting in his character's vindictive approach to the prisoners in H3, in sharp contrast to Simpson, a more sympathetic prison officer who is ousted as the prison conflict escalates.

'I'll take over for today, Mr. Simpson' says Doherty, a single phrase which signals the end of any constructive engagement with prisoner representatives and the beginning of a reign of terror inside the H-Blocks. Doherty was imprisoned at the age of 18, the same age as many of the Republicans who would later join the Hunger Strikes. He suffered the mirror searches, the beatings, the issues described in the film, which stay with the prisoner after his release. "I lay back in my bed and thought of all the batterings I got during my eleven years in prison," he explains. "As prisoners, we delved deep into our minds to deal with it, you think of clothes, football, music, anything to try to keep the mind stimulated. "Given Doherty's background, how did it feel to put on the uniform and become a Prison Officer? "I felt like God" he admits, beaming happily, stroking the buttons on his neatly-pressed jacket, "Once you get into a uniform - suddenly in a split second you've turned into Superman!" "Once you put on the uniform you change completely" says Mark McCrory who plays Morton, another Prison Officer.

'You feel strong and confident, like you have a God-given right to run the prisoners into the ground." 'This film works as a team effort, each and everyone has a significant part yet no one person steals the limelight. It reminds me of times on stage where it doesn't matter if someone has more lines than you, the work hangs together out of a collective effort,' says Doherty. But Doherty is not alone in bringing his life experience to his role. All the actors were highly motivated and many of them lobbied for their parts long before the film went into production. "I want this gig" Feargal McElherron told Les Blair at his screen test. McElherron has read extensively about Francis Hughes, the hunger striker he portrays on screen and one of the Republican movement's greatest heroes. At 32, he is older than most of the actors and can recall events of the time.

"It was important not to let hate get the better of you, to use your intelligence. That's what I tried to hold on to. The Hunger Strikes were vital in proving the point on the political nature of the struggle. Why would a criminal starve himself to death?" he asks. "I feel an enormous responsibility because of the subject matter, it's not just another acting gig - we're making history by telling this story and keeping it true to events as they happened. "Liam, a committed Republican prisoner, is played by newcomer Kevin Elliot, who brought a childhood scrapbook from the Hunger Strike era to the set and listened to a tape called 'Music from the Blocks' every single night. Kevin grew up in West Belfast but admits he needed to fully research his role. 'It's hard to play the part when you eat three full meals during the shoot!' says Elliot, who, like other actors, went to enormous lengths to get into his part, throwing his mattress in a corner at night and sleeping on the hotel floor. One of the most engaging characters in the film is Madra, a veteran blanket man, who has spent four years refusing to conform to prison regulations, with all the punishment that implies. Played by Belfast born Tony Devlin, he has the longest hair and beard and seems a bit crazy, (this might explain his nickname, 'madra' which means 'dog' in Irish) but his madness keeps everyone else's spirits up, taking charge of the nightly entertainment on the wing. Devlin attended drama school for three years and was immediately taken with the H3 script when he first read it. "It's unbelievable!

I knew the second I read it I would work on it and I wasn't going to take no for an answer,' he jokes. I was brought up surrounded by the H-block murals and the folklore, even though I was only three at the time of the actual hunger strikes. 'Madra weighed nine stone five pounds when he began work on the film, losing one stone and 2lbs before shooting began. For most of the actors it was the first time playing their own accents in a film, unlike Ciaran, played by Manchester actor Dean Lennox Kelly, who found a whole new world opening up before him. "I read Ten Men Dead on my way here and found myself openly weeping on the train from Scotland" he admits. "The passion of the other lads blew me away. I'm having my Irish history lesson here! It was just a job until I got onto the set. I'd ask a question about some aspect of the history and half an hour later the other lads would still be explaining it. "Kelly also found an unusual level of trust and intimacy between the actors; 'There's an affection there, a good feeling between the men, it's nice to be able to express that.

'Director Les Blair was delighted to have such a motivated cast. They were all mad keen on their roles so it was more a question of focus on timing and delivery', he says. Blair champions a gritty, realistic approach to film-making, dispatching one actress to a brothel to research her role as a prostitute in a previous film while another actor ended up on the road as a stand-up comedian in preparation for "Stand and Deliver" , Blair's film about a comedian on the road. "I do feel an outsider in the sense that I plough my own furrow and try not to compromise," said Blair, who overcame a daunting series of obstacles to make "Jump the Gun" in South Africa, a film pairing a white man (who is a political innocent) with an Afrikaner prostitute and a young black woman.

Blair's talent was recognised by the British Academy of Television and Film Arts who presented him with Best Drama award for his 'News Hounds' (1990) a play set inside a newspaper office. Blair also directed "Bad Behavior", a low-key, loose comedy about an Irish couple in North London and the troubles that flood their lives when they try to repair their bathroom, revealing an ease and grace of style that reflects years of hard work and studied improvisation. I saw this film in some way as a variation on the POW genre says Blair, setting H3 alongside the popular World War Two dramas set inside prisoner-of-war camps. The H-Blocks tested the limits of human behaviour and probed the depths of the human condition, resulting in a complex web of friendship, loyalty and fear which is at the heart of this film. 'This film works like a voyage,' says Doherty, 'the relationship between Declan and Seamus allows the audience to get beyond the cliches and into the minds of a hunger striker. The Sands election changed everything, it showed that there was a way forward through politics.' He is upbeat about the prospects of both H3 and the peace process, regarding both events as steps forward in the healing process.

'This film definitely helped me get that era out of my system, it's very therapeutic that the story is being told. When we came out of prison there was no such thing as counselling, you just came out and you were supposed to get on with it, that was tough for young lads coming out of that experience." "At the end of the film, you are left with a positive affirmation of friendship and loyalty, a bond between all the prisoners who are there and this is the true theme of the film" explains Wilson. "In this sense the story could be set in any prison or prison camp in the world. It is a celebration of the strength of the human spirit to endure so much and still come out being positive.