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a good drama, portrait of poverty, and mainstream taste of rap —Marty Mapes (review...)

Eminem drives 8 Mile back home

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— Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense

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Showing at the International Film Series this weekend (February 9 & 10)

Art, terrorism, biology, justice: a complex mix
Art, terrorism, biology, justice: a complex mix

On May 11th, 2006, college professor and artist Steve Kurtz phoned 911 to report the death of his wife. Although she had no history of medical problems, Hope Kurtz was found dead due to heart failure. The police investigation that followed proved to be more than just an average examination of the deceased; it was a full-blown witch hunt.

I talked with writer, director, and editor of Strange Culture, Lynn Hershman Leeson, who delved head-first into the circus that became Steve Kurtz’s life after he was detained under suspicion of bioterrorism. As Leeson says, “it is an issue of our time — censorship and repression of expression.”

Suspecting foul play, the Buffalo Police Department called in the Joint Terrorism Task Force to investigate Steve and the scientific experiments that he was conducting in his house on genetically modified food. When they arrived, they found strange powders all over the house, an invitation to an art exhibit written in Arabic, and tinfoil covering all the windows. Even though all of the chemicals and equipment were legal, the FBI held Steve for 22 hours without charge and seized many of his belongings, calling it “Protocol Post 9/11”.

“Someone had told me about it. I thought it would blow over,” says Leeson about first hearing the story. “When it didn’t I felt I had to do something.”

Intercut between dramatized footage, interviews, pages from a graphic novel, and a Keith Olbermann report, this documentary swiftly tackles the important issues and exposes the rights that Steve Kurtz lost after being falsely accused. Not only were the accusations bogus, but the amount of abuse ranged from the imprisonment of his cat to attempting to get a confession that he wanted to kill President Bush.

The recreated scenes in the film mainly feature Tilda Swinton as Hope and Thomas Jay Ryan as Steve. Interestingly, we watch the actors break out of their roles and begin to analyze and identify with the characters they are playing. Leeson says of the unique approach, “there was no real inspiration for it; the ideas emerged as I edited it.”

The real prize here is the emotional testimony of the actual Steve Kurtz, who we begin to figure out, is no terrorist — just a unique American that we can all learn from. The issues explored in Strange Culture complex, but the message Leeson has for us is a simple one: “Be diligent in protecting your civil rights. I have hope that things will change.”

  • Lucia Sommer: Thank you for this story about Lynn Hershman Leeson's important film "Strange Culture." Please allow me to make several important corrections to this otherwise excellent article. First, there were no "strange powders" in the house" -- Critical Art Ensemble's (CAE's) work never involved "powders". Second, as the film clearly explains, tinfoil did not cover "all the windows" -- it covered one South-facing window in the bedroom because the Kurtzes liked to sleep late (they got the idea from Elvis!). As the film also explains, CAE had a small home lab and petri dishes containing harmless bacteria cultures that were to be used as part of an art exhibit on Genetically Modified food for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and other projects.

    CAE are award-winning, internationally renowned artists who are regularly invited all over the world by major museums and other cultural institutions -- such as the London Museum of Natural history -- who commission their work which examines questions surrounding biotechnology. And the projects in question had already been exhibited at museums all over Europe with absolutely no risk to the public. Steve Kurtz explained all of this to the officer who responded to his 9/11 call, and even tasted some of the harmless bacteria in the petri dishes to prove it was harmless, but the officer called the FBI anyway.

    The CAE Defense Fund would appreciate if these corrections could be made to the article, as this is an ongoing case with very serious consequences to an innocent man. The USA PATRIOT Act has increased the possible sentence for the "mail fraud" charges under which Steve is now being charged (the government was of course forced to drop the "bioterrorism" charges) from 5 years to 20.

    This is a case we cannot lose, not only for Steve's sake but for all of ours: it directly affects all American's Constitutionally- guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and inquiry. If we lose this case, anyone will be able to be arrested for inconsistencies in a minor contract (such as incorrectly filling out a warranty card for a TV set) and these will be punishable by up to 20 years in prison! The extremists at the Department of Justice will have the perfect tool for selective prosecution that will truly enable them to carry out their scheme of "pre-emptive justice."

    For comprehensive information about the case with extensive documentation, and how you can help, please visit:
    caedefensefund.org

    Thank you,

    February 8, 2008 reply
  • Nick Reed: Thanks for the comments, Lucia.

    I should have better stated that the description I was using for the Kurtz's house about the strange powders and tinfoil was through the perspective of the law enforcement team -- as it was shown in the documentary.

    I'm sorry if your views do not wish to include the other side's testimony, but I felt it was important to not base my article on defending Steve Kurtz... February 18, 2008 reply
  • Lucia: Dear Nick,

    It's not a question of including the "other side's" testimony or not: the prosecution's indictment itself says nothing about powders in the house -- you can read it yourself at http://caedefensefund.org, or by calling the court.

    As coordinator of Steve's defense fund, I consulted on Lynn's film and we are of course endlessly grateful for all the awareness it has raised. I'm only pointing out, as Lynn herself states, that her film is a "hybrid" docudrama, and the re-enacted scenes are an artist's *interpretation* of what happened. (The interviews, on the other hand, of course, are real). At the time, as is usual on advice of attorneys, Steve was unable to talk about certain aspects of the case, hence the need for the interpretation and re-enactments.

    It's a complicated case, so many reporters get facts wrong--it has nothing to do with any agenda on their part, just time pressure of the 24/7 news cycle--and then these get repeated later by other reporters. (For example, one error that gets repeated is that the paramedics called the FBI (in fact it was police, as Prosecutor Hochul himself is quoted in the Buffalo News as saying -- it may seem like a minor thing but we don't want to malign the paramedics who did nothing of the sort.)

    That's why, for comprehensive and accurate information about the case, including extensive documentation, we encourage people to visit caedefensefund.org. We post "the other side" (the DoJ's indictment and all other legal documents) as well as a huge archive of hundreds of news stories, so you don't have to take our word for anything, you can read it all and decide for yourself.

    Perhaps the best vindication of Steve's innocence is the judge's ruling to dismiss all charges against him on April 21.

    Sincerely,

    Lucia May 21, 2008 reply