(26/03/08) – Lynn Hershman’s Strange Culture deals with the very urgent issue of the corrosion of freedom of speech in the name of the ‘war on terrorism’. With Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan and Peter Coyote in the cast, 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.

Last year we spoke to Hershman, whose previous efforts include Teknolust (2002), on the occasion of the Cannes Film Festival. Fortunately, the film is now available on a Region 1 DVD released by New Video Group and Region 2 by Docurama. Here is the conversation Kamera had with Hershman.

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.

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.

Strange Culture is out now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and help Kamera by doing so.