Even at this late stage in the decline of the constitutional republic, with essentially no restrictions on Federal wiretapping and the elimination of habeas corpus (as of press time), most blithe Americans consider themselves immune from Third Reich-style abuses of power. Steve Kurtz, a SUNY/Buffalo associate professor of art and one of the founders of the Critical Art Ensemble, is savvier than most about the government’s dark side, but even he couldn’t anticipate the Orwell-meets-Kafka house of horrors in which he’s been trapped since May, 2004. As depicted in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s riveting and unconventional documentary, “Strange Culture,” Kurtz is a victim of mistaken identity, paranoid overreaction, and official muscle. As those noirish TV shows of the ’50s used to put it, his story could be yours. And yet we seem less troubled by the ramifications of the case than our concerned friends overseas.
“At Sundance we were told Europeans would not understand the film,” Hershman emails from Montreal, in the midst of setting up four installations of her work. “It was the opposite, especially in [cities] like Warsaw and Berlin, where there has been serious repression, and a fight for freedom of expression, and censorship. People were outraged and shocked that this could happen to an artist in America.”
What happened was Steve Kurtz woke up one morning to find his wife, Hope, dead. The paramedics saw all kinds of scientific equipment and Petri dishes (hence the film’s title, or at least one of its meanings) and, in a post-9/11 world, alerted the police. They, in turn, brought in the FBI, who treated the house like the headquarters of a bio-terrorist plot. Kurtz was indicted on a number of felonies (although the grand jury would not rubber-stamp the terrorism charge), and his life was essentially ripped out from under him.
In reality, the Kurtzes were putting together an installation for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art that challenged the hidden incursion of biotechnology into food production. Their heavily researched work entailed a certain amount of scientific activity, which explains the gear and samples in the house. From a monolithic corporate-government perspective, sure, the project was subversive and dangerous. But a public health threat or a criminal enterprise? Not even close.
“Strange Culture” debuted at Sundance amidst a raft of documentaries and features centering on the continuing occupation of Iraq. Although it stood alone in its portrait of the civil liberties war at home, and Americans were finally expressing some interest in hearing about the abuses of the Bush Administration, distributors didn’t line up. Perhaps they had commercial considerations, or maybe they felt a chill. .
“Though we sold to DVD and Sundance Channel, it did not get distribution, despite rave reviews,” Hershman says. “Some courageous theater owners began to screen it on their own, one sending it to the other, and all paying [their own] advertising for it. So there are still those individuals with courage and spirit in the world, but not normal distribution channels.”
Hershman turns out groundbreaking films, such as “Conceiving Ada” and “Teknolust,” that challenge both our relationship with technology and our reliance on conventional storytelling. “Strange Culture” is the most straightforward and approachable film she’s made, as if she’s acknowledging that real lives are at stake, not abstract principles. At the same time, she provides a stylistic fillip out of narrative necessity and artistic audacity: She cast Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan (“Henry Fool”) as Hope and Steve, and gracefully splices their scenes alongside straightforward interviews with Steve and broadcast news clips. It is an unusually effective and undeniably artful approach, in which the structure of the work reflects its subject’s iconoclasm and experimentation.
By integrating dramatic recreations with common documentary techniques, “Strange Cuilture” exemplifies “the creative interpretation of reality,” which is how the late great British filmmaker John Grierson’s defined “documentary.” But what are the limits of fiction in evoking the truth? And, for that matter, what are the limits of nonfiction?
“Aha!” Hershman wrote back enthusiastically. “That’s a key question because it is all point of view and perspective, right? Fiction in art can have a more profound element of truth than documented evidence. Documented evidence is only what can be derived at a particular time, from a particular language or point of view.”
She adds what we might take as a Hershmanian non sequitur, or a helpful mantra to get us through the fall-winter season of “prestige” films. “As Man Ray says, ‘In all great films there are 10 bad minutes and in all bad films there are 10 good minutes.’”
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