Steve Kurtz calls 911 when he finds his wife dead. When the authorities arrive at the scene, they find Petrie dishes and scientific equipment so they call the FBI. Kurtz is then arrested and charged with bioterrorism.
This is not a typical documentary but it is also not a dramatic feature. The production company Docurama prides itself on being the first and only video label dedicated exclusively to critically acclaimed and cutting-edge documentaries. They release both new and classic documentaries featuring filmmakers such as John Landis and Michael Moore. It is not just big names Docurama seeks out, but also smaller artists with an important story to tell.
Lynn Hershman Leeson wrote and directed Strange Culture, following the strange arrest and trials of Steve Kurtz, a professor and member of performing art group, Critical Art Ensemble. Because the documentary was being made during the indictments and trial of Kurtz, the accused was not allowed to speak publicly about a number of details in the case, including everything that led up to his arrest. To get around this problem, Leeson hired some professional actors to play the roles of the accused and had them present the evidence instead.
I guess it is okay for Kurtz to tell the filmmakers, he just can’t be the one to make it public?
The big name selling this movie is Academy Award winning actress Tilda Swinton. Swinton played Kurtz’s deceased wife, Hope Kurtz. Swinton was an obvious choice for Leeson to call as the two had worked together on her last two feature films, Teknolust and Conceiving Ada. Rounding out the actors is Thomas Jay Ryan (who also starred in Teknolust) as Steve Kurtz. The movie is a strange mix of docudrama and documentary as we hear from both Ryan, in dramatic staged scenes reliving the life of Kurtz, as well as seeing Kurtz himself in interview segments. The movie bounces around between actors and the real people to tell the story.
The story itself is a very interesting and scary tale. Kurtz was a professor developing an art project using genetically altered food. When he found his wife dead in their bed, he called 911 and found himself jailed on suspicion of bioterrorism. He was not allowed any freedoms during his initial incarceration thanks to the Patriot Act. Even when the FBI realized they had no case against him for bioterrorism, they had him indicted for criminal mail fraud and wire fraud charges based on the manner in which he ordered the biological specimens over the Internet.
His friend and colleague, Dr. Robert Ferrell, would eventually succumb to pressure and plea bargain his way out, in large part due to health concerns. Thanks to the pressures of the government’s strong arm tactics and a history of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he suffered a series of strokes following the indictments. Kurtz would hold on, fight and on April 21, 2008 the judge dropped the charges against Kurtz. This documentary debuted at Sundance in 2007, so there is no information on the final verdict in the film. Furthermore, there is no mention of the dropped charges in the special features either.
When I think about documentaries chronicling an innocent man accused of a horrible crime, The Thin Blue Line and The Trials of Darryl Hunt. Strange Culture is more similar to the Errol Morris film, created to prove the innocence of the man during the time of his troubles. However, when we hear from the real Kurtz, it is very similar also to the trials of tribulations of Darryl Hunt. Kurtz is a man caught up in a mind boggling situation where the real enemy is the United States government. Yet through it all, he remains humbled and always refers to what his late wife would have wanted him to do.
The Thin Blue Line is best known as a documentary that brought a great wrong to the public front. The aftermath is sad as Randall Adams, a man who owes his entire freedom to Errol Morris’ near perfect documentary, proved where his loyalties rested when he sued the filmmaker for the film’s rights. Kurtz does not appear to be that type of man and, more like the case of Hunt, seems appreciative of the work the filmmakers put into telling his side of the story. There are a number of scenes where Kurtz is speaking to Swinton and Ryan about his story and he treats everyone with the utmost respect.
Despite the interesting premise and honorable intentions, the documentary never appeared to flow right. Switching between reenactment and live interview footage was not handled well in all cases. The film also seemed to drag and didn’t seem to know how to end. The final verdict was still two years away, so I can understand the confusion on the climax of the story, but the last portion of the film seems to repeat the same ideas over and over again. There were even repeats in interview quotes over a five minute period at the end. It was a confusing end to a plodding story.
The actors were great and the interview segments were handled well, it was not up to the par of its contemporary rivals in the documentary department. A great story like this deserved a better hand behind the camera. If this movie was any kind of driving force behind getting Kurtz cleared of all charges, it was a success.
There are 82 minutes worth of bonus interviews. Writer/Director Lynn Hershman Leeson (46 min) talks with artist Lucy Gray. Gray was the set photographer and did the first interview after the premiere at Sundance. They start describing how Leeson started her career by writing reviews of her own work under pseudonyms to help get it shown. With the controversial start to her career, they go through her career as an artist and into her filmmaking endeavors. All this interview is overlaid with clips of her artwork and still photographs. The next interview segment is with Leeson and Kurtz (36 min), and was completed six months after Sundance. This interview is more about why they made the movie and the actual incidents surrounding the arrest. Both interviews are in depth and informative.
There in an outtake reel that is filler. There is the original trailer as well as trailers for other Docuramas. The rest of the special features are text based.