Strange Culture



Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- You don't have to be paranoid for "Strange Culture" to scare the hell out of you. The film revolves around the ongoing legal case of the U.S. government v. Steve Kurtz, quite possibly the grossest judicial overreaching in the post-Sept. 11 world. If this isn't the grossest instance, then heaven protect anyone who wants to think and speak freely in this country.

Despite coverage in major newspapers and TV shows, the Kurtz case still has not received the media spotlight it deserves. Perhaps Lynn Hershman-Leeson's electrifying and alarming film will change this. Like last year's festival entry, "An Inconvenient Truth," the film needs a distributor that understands the solid business and political reasons for releasing the film.

Even before the tragedy of May 11, 2004, Kurtz's own work operated below the radar. A long-haired associate professor of art at SUNY Buffalo and founding member of the theater troupe Critical Art Ensemble, Kurtz was then working on an exhibition for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art that confronted the hot-button topic of genetically modified food. When his wife, Hope, died early that morning in her sleep of heart failure, Kurtz's called 911.

The paramedics grew suspicious of the professor's art supplies, which often consisted of petri dishes containing bacteria ordered over the Internet. The FBI was called in, and soon agents in hazmat suits were rifling through his house. They impounded books, computers and even his wife's body. He immediately was branded a "bioterrorist" and arrested.

Two and a half years later, the case still is pending in federal court. Because his lawyer advised him not to talk about certain aspects of the case, Hershman-Leeson has chosen to explore the situation in an experimental approach. Actors -- notably Thomas Jay Ryan as Steve and Tilda Swinton as Hope -- dramatize certain scenes. News footage, comic book drawings and talking-head interviews with colleagues and fellow artists fill in other gaps.

What emerges is a conspiracy, all right -- a conspiracy in the Justice Department with two clear agendas. In an effort to manufacture a crime where there is no obvious one, prosecutors have charged Kurtz and his longtime collaborator, Robert Ferrell, with federal mail and wire fraud. By using civil law to bring criminal charges, the Justice Department is attempting to expand its powers over U.S. citizens. The other agenda is to silence the scientific and artistic community in the debate over genetically modified foods. The government and agribusiness have a huge investment in GMF, so they do not appreciate people like Kurtz raising questions about Frankenfoods.

The most telling staged scene has one of Kurtz's colleagues (Josh Kornbluth) present a petition on his behalf to his students. This provokes a heart-wrenching debate by the young people about the wisdom of signing such a document. How might linking their names with Kurtz's restrict future job opportunities and their freedom of movement in and out of a country where a president asserts the right to label anyone he chooses as a terrorist?

With disarming directness and intriguing indirectness, Hershman-Leeson has made a document -- though not quite a documentary -- that speaks volumes about where free expression stands today in the U.S. in its ceaseless combat with the forces of repression.

L5 Prods.
Screenwriter-director-editor: Lynn Hershman-Leeson
Producers: Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Lise Swenson, Steven Beer
Executive producers: Melina Jampolis, Jessie Fuller
Director of photography: Hiro Narita
Music: The Residents
Co-producers: Loren Smith, Barbara Tomber
Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan, Peter Coyote, Josh Kornbluth, Steve Kurtz
Running time -- 75 minutes
No MPAA rating