Art and terrorism in this true-life tale that's hard to believe

Strange Culture

on January 19, 2007 by Sara Schieron
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The federal trial of artist Steve Kurtz is a contemporary paradox. How an artist and professor in Buffalo went from a mourning widower to a bio-terrorist threat needs ample explanation for many to even grasp the confounding and singularly contemporary situation. Lynn Hershman-Leeson mixes documentary, reenactment, actor's interpretation and video from many different sources to flesh out the facts and fables of this Patriot Act-era tragedy.

Hope Kurtz, the wife of Steve Kurtz and the manager of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), was back from a business trip managing her husband's newest exhibition when she died suddenly of heart failure. Steve's art for the last many years has focused on the effects of genetically modified foods. His aim and the goal of CAE revolved around alerting the public to the possible dangers that have been unknowingly injected into our “organic” greens. A major part of this exhibit involved Petri dishes of the bacteria used in the genetic modification of crops.

In her 40s, and with no previous health problems, Hope's death arose suspicion of foul play, but when they saw Kurtz's at-home lab, Buffalo police called the FBI. The Bureau identified him as a bio-terrorist threat and took him into immediate and unexplained custody for 22 hours. Supported by a portion of the Patriot Act requiring certain civil cases to be tried on the federal level, Kurtz's case was sent to trial. In a situation of Kafka-esque proportions, Kurtz remains on trial today.

With a title as appropriately ironic and layered as Strange Culture , Hershman-Leeson's film amply lives up to the task of exposing and criticizing this governmental wrong that typifies the current context of paranoia while also highlighting the massive divide that continues to grow between art and government. Adding another rich layer to the film, Kurtz comments upon the performances of the actors playing him and his wife, and both Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan are captured explaining their characters, who may be living stories that are hard to believe but are certainly far from fiction.
Distributor: No distributor set
Cast: Thomas Jay Ryan, Tilda Swinton, Steve Kurtz, Josh Kornbluth and Peter Coyote
Director/Screenwriter: Lynn Hershman-Leeson
Producer: Lise Swenson, Steven Beer and Lynn Hershman-Leeson
Genre: Documentary drama
Rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 75 min.
Release date: TBD
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