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STRANGE CULTURE(director/writer: Lynn Hershman-Leeson; cinematographer: Hiro Narita; editor: Lynn Hershman-Leeson; music: The Residents; cast: Thomas Jay Ryan (Steve Kurtz), Tilda Swinton (Hope Kurtz), Steve Kurtz (Himself), Peter Coyote (Robert Ferrell), Josh Kornbluth (Phil/Lynn Hershman), Shoresh Alaudini (Loren); Runtime: 75; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lise Swenson/Steven Beer/Lynn Hershman-Leeson; Sundance Channel; 2007)
“A real-life nightmare scene out of Kafka.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Lynn Hershman-Leeson (“Teknolust”/”Conceiving Ada”/”Virtual Love”) directs this scary investigative reporting documentary on citizen’s rights hampered under the new Patriotic Act put in place during the post- 9/11 period. It’s part documentary, part drama. The essential film explores the real-life horror story of artist Steve Kurtz, a professor at SUNY/Buffalo, that took place on 5/15/04, after the death of his beloved 45-year-old wife Hope, of 27 years, who died of a heart attack. The EM response team finds in his house a makeshift lab with petri dishes of bacteria and mutated flies, which leads the FBI to investigate. After they also find an admission ticket to MASS MOCA with Arabic writing, they charge the artist with being a bioterrorist.

The artist couple were both members of Critical Art Ensemble, “a collective of five artists of various specializations,” each with a website, “dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory.” Steve chose to investigate modified foods by the big food and industrial companies, believing the USDA and FDA, who are supposed to protect the public, are negligent in their duties as both government regulatory agencies have been in bed with the giant corporations and have let them put profit ahead of consumer health by not letting us know what foods have been genetically altered and their real dangers.

The fanatical paranoid authorities, in a real-life nightmare scene out of Kafka, used the Kurtz case for political intimidation—to keep both the artists and scientists quiet. As Kurtz still awaits trial (for the possession of $250 worth of easily obtainable biological materials that’s openly and legally sold over the Internet and despite the suspicious bacteria found being innocuous and determined that it could not be used to build weapons of mass destruction, the government has refused to drop charges and, instead, vigorously continues to pursue the case against Kurtz and his scientist technical adviser Robert Ferrell, former head of the genetics department, at the University of Pittsburgh), and therefore Steve is not allowed to discuss his pending case’s details on camera. Realizing that gap, Leeson adroitly blends Kurtz’s lucid cautious testimony in with the performances by Thomas Jay Ryan (Steve Kurtz), Tilda Swinton (Hope) and Peter Coyote (Dr. Robert Ferrell).

The “Society of Fear” created in the post-9/11 period is very real and very frightening, and this film gives you a glimpse of the Bush legacy, also signed onto by many ill-advised Democrats, something that should concern every American who cares about freedom. The troubling nightmare tale of the innocent Kurtz should be a wake-up call for those who never reflected on the deeper ramifications of the Patriotic Act and how it might effect them, and this advocacy journalist film does about a good a job as it can with its incomplete subject matter–making the real art project the Kurtz case.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”