"This film is dedicated to Hope."
Thus reads the opening epigraph in Lynn Hershman Leeson's film
Strange Culture that opens the Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival this Friday, June 15th in New York. It's
a lovely sentiment for our era of unremitting pessimism. When one
realizes that Hope is not only the belief that events can turn out
for the best, but a 45-year old woman who died prematurely of natural
causes in her sleep, chills travel up and down one's spine.
The film chronicles Steve Kurtz, an art professor at the State
University of New York at Buffalo and a member of the art collective
Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Kurtz awoke on
May 11, 2004, to find his wife and collaborator Hope Kurtz, who had
no prior health problems, dead. When the cops arrived and saw a lab
and Petri dishes planned for use in an art installation about
genetically modified food at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary
Art, they called all manner of federal acronyms, including DHS or
Homeland Security. The FBI arrested Kurtz on suspicion of
bioterrorism, an utterly false charge that should've been quickly
Because Kurtz cannot publicly discuss details of the case on advice
of counsel, Strange Culture delicately and cleverly threads together
dramatization and documentary footage. Actors Thomas Jay Ryan and
Tilda Swinton play Steve and Hope Kurtz. While the blatant First
Amendment (freedom of speech) and Fourth Amendment (the right to be
secure from unreasonable search and seizure) violations by the feds
is horrifying, the cruel treatment of a man who's just lost his wife
is nauseating. If anyone still thinks that describing the United
States government by using the F word -- fascist -- is an overstatement
in 2007, then they should see this film.
Kurtz was illegally detained for a day, his house was turned upside
down, and his work -- and Hope's body -- were seized for
investigation. While it was eventually ruled that there was no
public safety threat or terrorism involved, the Department of Justice
(oxymorons are ubiquitous in Orwell's 21st Century America) continues
to prosecute Kurtz and colleague and geneticist Robert Ferrell for
wire and mail fraud, even though they followed standard procedure
practiced by laboratories and universities.
The last three years have been a nightmare of filed motions and pre-
trial hearings and still no one knows when the case is expected to go
to trial. Kurtz and Ferrell face 20 years in prison, the same as the
terrorism charges. It's a thought crime vendetta using alleged
violations that are normally civil matters.
Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble are guilty of practicing freedom
of speech. Among other transgressions, including being anti-war and
anti-GMO, they've accused corporations and their U.S. government
proxy of inciting panic. Through mixed media (installation,
performance, text), the CAE makes the case that the population-at-
large is not susceptible to biowarfare; that the motivation for scare
tactics is the "symbolic abstraction of fear" to control citizens and
reap corporate profits. I know this panic-for-profits scam is real
because I have an unopened box of Tamiflu in my closet. I shelled
out many shekels for it, yet there have been no cases of Avian Bird
Flu in the United States.
Artist and supporter Gregg Bordowitz explains in the film that a
potential conviction for Kurtz and Ferrell gives the Bush
administration an "opportunity... to extend the government's powers into
the university system, into academia, into the art world...and run with
The CAE Defense Fund desperately needs
approximately $120,000 for legal fees. Both Strange Culture director
Hershman Lee and Kurtz will be present at Friday's screening. The
film will also run on June 18th and 19th. Highly recommended is the
CAE's latest book Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health.
Michael Battle, the original federal prosecutor in the CAE case, was
promoted in June 2005 to be the Justice Department's overseer of US
Attorneys. He was the official who informed seven US Attorneys in
the Attorneygate Scandal that they were being dismissed and he
resigned amidst controversy on March 5th of this year. His
successor, the man who continues to prosecute Kurtz and Ferrell, is
William Hochul. I'm old enough to remember Richard Kuh, the
assistant district attorney in New York who made deadlines in the
1960s by hounding comedian Lenny Bruce for obscenity. When Kuh ran
for DA in 1974, the voters remembered that it was Richard Kuh who
persecuted Lenny Bruce and contributed to his decline and eventual
death. Kuh lost by a landslide and his political days were over.
William Hochul. Remember that name. William Hochul. William Hochul.