February 25, 2008

Strange but True

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A film that’s both intimate in its presentation and ambitious in its topical scope, Strange Culture starts by addressing a private tragedy and ends with fireworks, challenging our government’s assault on civil liberties. Directed by Cornell’s own A.D. White Professor-at-Large Lynn Hershman-Leeson, the film applies both dramatic and documentary-style narrative structures to tell the story of SUNY Buffalo Professor Steve Kurtz and his battle with the United States Department of Justice.

Kurtz, the founder of the Critical Arts Ensemble, a group of academics that create arts exhibits around issues of science and its societal impact, called 911 on May 11, 2004 to report the death of his wife, Hope. When Buffalo police arrived, they found his house littered with cultures of non-pathogenic bacteria in Petri dishes, and, suspecting bio-terrorism, called in the FBI. That Kurtz was unquestionably innocent of the charges of bio-terrorism seemed to be lost on the Department of Justice, who pursued legal action against him in criminal courts. The film gives the viewer multiple views into the life of Kurtz — the first portion is largely a dramatic re-enactment while the latter portions of the film are done almost entirely in documentary form; a film crew follows around the real life Kurtz through his legal battles.

Strange Culture (which is showing later this week in Willard Strait Hall) is a fascinating example of multi-dimensional filmmaking. The fantastic actors that grace the film — Thomas Jay Ryan and Tilda Swinton portray Kurtz and his wife — elevate the dramatic portions and add valuable emotional context to later passages, even as Kurtz and his associates are discussing the weighty political issues at stake; it’s hard to forget Hope’s death even when the topical spotlight shifts to important constitutional issues.

But the word “issues” might be an understatement. Going in with no prior knowledge of the film other than the actors it features, I was astounded by the gravity and import of Kurtz’s situation. Those speaking in the documentary paint a bleak picture of the government’s pursuit of Kurtz’s conviction — without going into too much detail, it suffices to say that a conviction of Kurtz would set precedent for an enormous expansion of power for the Justice Department, allowing them to intrude into academia in the name of national security. The power play, according to commentators in the documentary, fits neatly in line with the Bush administration’s general disregard for civil liberties, and has a slightly McCarthy-an air about it.

It’s impossible to remove politics from the picture when approaching Strange Culture. Those who agree with President Bush’s national security tactics will probably not enjoy the film; those who fall on the other side of the political spectrum will probably respond much more favorably. This is a film, however, that is instructive for its examination of an issue that received tremendous press at the time of its inception, but has since faded into the background. Whatever your politics, check out Strange Culture.