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