In one respect, the court of public opinion works just like a real U.S. courtroom: The defendant just has to prove, or at least cast a degree of reasonable doubt, that he didn’t do what he’s being accused of. It’s up to prosecutors to make the specific case.
And in the court of public opinion, documentary Strange Culture acts a bit like a defense lawyer for its protagonist Steve Kurtz, the college professor and artist who the federal government pursued as a bioterrorist in 2004, when Petri dishes were discovered in his home by first responders answering a 911 call. Kurtz called them himself because his wife of 27 years, Hope Kurtz, had died in her sleep of heart failure, despite no history of health problems.
This documentary film by Lynn Hershman suggests that the government is coming down so hard on Kurtz for one of two reasons.
One reason could be that the Department of Justice’s first impulse was to accuse him of bioterrorism, and they were then reluctant to back off the charges to save face and avoid looking foolish, and because of the immense political pressure they were under to make a bust in the conviction-less “War on Terror.”
Another could be that the Kurtzes and their art collective, “The Critical Art Ensemble,” were in the process of putting together a show designed to educate the public on the evils of agribusiness’ genetically modified foods, which, in the U.S., doesn’t need to be labeled, and which the government is therefore complicit in.
The case for the latter is extremely wobbly, and veers into conspiracy theory at time, particularly since the case for the former fits the well established pattern of the DOJ leaping on anything that looks like potentially terrorism-esque, declaring victory, and then backpedaling into a conviction—of any crime at all—as the case erodes.
Of course, what makes the case of the Kurtzes stand out from all the other examples is that they didn’t do anything wrong.
But it’s not Strange Culture’s job to present the motivation for the case against Kurtz, but merely to chronicle it. And the film is, in that regard, an effective one, one that should leave audiences justly infuriated.
Because the trial is still ongoing, Kurtz can’t speak about many aspects of it, a problem Hershman solves not only by reliance on interviews with colleagues, snippets of media coverage and blown-up panels of a graphic novel story recounting of the case, but also by hiring actors to dramatize the events leading up to the bust. These include Thomas Jay Ryan as Kurtz and frequent Hershman collaborator Tilda Swinton as Hope.
A chilling, off-kilter original score (provided by The Residents) plays over scenes of the day-to-day lives of the artists/college professors, in which their biggest problems involve getting tenure and squabbling over deadlines, right up until Hope dies, and Kurtz is accused of bioterrorism.
It’s a particularly weird movie from there on in, as Kurtz and the guy playing Kurtz will switch back and forth, and sometimes appear together. Weird or not, Hersham sure lays out a damning list of governmental incompetence.
The FBI find it interesting that Kurtz has an invitation to an exhibit in his house which bears Arabic writing. They put him in a hotel while they investigate his house, locking his cat in the attic without food or water for days. They left trash like pizza boxes and Gator-Ade bottle around the house, along with discarded haz-mat suits and notes on their investigation. They took his bacteria samples, which he purchased form a university scientist over the Internet, but left the protective wrapping for it.
Some of it would be hilarious—like Kurtz’s anecdote of clean cut strangers coming up to him and asking him if he could help them buy drugs or asking leading questions about killing the president—if it weren’t so horrifying. After all, whatever happens in this case will set a precedent for future cases.
Unable to come up with anything else, the government eventually charges Kurtz and the man who sold him the bacteria with wire and mail fraud, because university requisition policy wasn’t followed in the transaction. The talking heads helpfully point out that would make it a civil matter, not a criminal one, and that it might just be the first case of fraud in which neither of the involved parties claims to have been defrauded.
The film’s short—only 75 minutes—and feels like it’s not quite finished, something the filmmakers themselves seem quite aware of. Near the end, Ryan, sitting alongside the man he plays, mentions that it would have made a better movie if the case were already over, and it could end with the persecuted innocent being triumphantly vindicated against the overreaching government. That would be a nice happy ending for a film like this.
But whether or not that day will come is still up in the air, and in a case this urgent, no one felt like they could wait for it.
Strange Culture screens Friday, October 5 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, October 6, at 2 p.m. at the Wex’s Film/Video Theater. Friday night’s screening will be followed by a discussion lead by Nato Thompson, a New York curator who was working on an exhibition with Kurtz at the time of his arrest. For more info, click to wexarts.org.