(09/07/07) – One of the films that will be showing in the market at the Cannes Film Festival that starts next week is Lynn Hershman Leeson’s urgently relevant Strange Culture, with Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan and Peter Coyote. The film chronicles the ongoing case of the American art professor and activist Steve Kurtz, a co-founder of the Critical Art Ensemble, who has become the most prominent victim of post-9/11 paranoia. On May 11 2004, Kurtz woke up to find his wife dead in bed next to him. When the medics arrived, they deemed the harmless bacteria which Kurtz was working with for a project as suspicious material and alerted the FBI. The organisation quickly jumped to the conclusion that Kurtz was a bioterrorist, despite all their suspicions being disproved. He now awaits a trial date. Hershman’s Strange Culture re-enacts some of the episodes of Kurtz’s Kafkian nightmare so far, creating a hybrid of documentary and discussion, with the actors encouraged to talk about their characters, their own work and the situation. Kamera caught up with Hershman, whose previous efforts include Teknolust (2002), also with Tilda Swinton, for a chat about her project.
Hershman’s Strange Culture re-enacts some of the episodes of Kurtz’s Kafkian nightmare so far, creating a hybrid of documentary and discussion, with the actors encouraged to talk about their characters, their own work and the situation. Kamera caught up with Hershman, whose previous efforts include Teknolust (2002), also with Tilda Swinton, for a chat about her project.
What aspect of the Steve Kurtz story prompted your decision to make a film?
The absurdity of the entire story, the importance of it, and in particular how it relates to the future of american culture .
The tribulation that Kurtz has gone, and still is going through, is worse than a Kafkian nightmare. What is the possible effect it may have on human rights and freedom of speech in the United States?
It already is curtailing it. It already has caused the demise of this particular art form. Museums won’t show it, artists won’t do it. There is a very real sense of repression and self-censorship, and internalised terrorism, which is by far the most dangerous things for a ‘free’ society.
What was it like to dramatise parts of an event that is still unfolding? What was the biggest challenge you were faced with?
We had no budget. I did it with a mini DV camera I already owned and everyone worked for free or deferments. The biggest expense was production insurance. I had no choice but to dramatise things we could not talk about, or that were unfolding.
Were you able to work in collaboration with Kurtz himself to construct this living narrative?
Yes, he helped write the scenes with Hope, in fact.
Do you think the film may have a positive impact on the outcome of Kurtz’s trial?
Let’s hope so, at least people will be aware of the case in a much broader way that could have been possible without it.
How has the film been received in festivals where it has been shown? Is it provoking the debate you were hoping?
Yes, absolutely. We had great response in festivals, and it will most likely be in festivals for next two years, and on TV with DVD, and possibly some theatrical releases.
How does the American public view Kurtz’s case? Hasn’t it caused an outcry? Or do you think people are only too willing to let go of reason so they can find a human shape to the often abstract idea of terrorism?
People were outraged at first, and now don’t want to say anything till the jury trial result, which by then will be too late. Fear and apathy governs much of what is done, sadly.
In terms of distribution, what are the prospects of the film being shown in Europe?
Cinemavault is representing it in Europe. They are showing it in the market in Cannes. It will show in Locarno, Greece, Scotland and, hopefully, the UK. All fingers crossed for that.