When Steve Kurtz, an associate professor at SUNY Buffalo, discovered that his wife and collaborator, Hope, had died of heart failure in her sleep, he called the paramedics, who discovered bacteria cultures in his house and called the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Kurtz, the subject of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new film Strange Culture, had been using the benign cultures as part of an art exhibit that would raise issues about the biotech industry. After the bacteria was legally declared to carry no health risks, Kurtz was arrested for defrauding the bacteria’s online retailers. In the wake of his wife’s death, he suddenly found himself being questioned about having Arabic literature around the house and being a potential sexual deviant. He’s currently awaiting trial for fraud.
Strange Culture combines documentary, staged fiction, and footage that falls somewhere in between—actors stepping out of their roles to give their own opinions, real people playing themselves—to offer a collision of opinions, stories, and speculations in which no single perspective is privileged. The result is a mood of paranoia: as Kurtz is hounded for crimes that aren’t crimes that he didn’t commit, the film questions even its own fabrications.
Hershman Leeson, a Sloan award winner for Teknolust, once again uses a scientific angle as a way to look at the larger sociological implications of an issue as well as a more intimate human-interest story. While the science initially seems to only be part of the premise, the cultures are eventually shown to be crucial to the film’s central argument: it’s not men like Steve Kurtz but the government that is cavalier about human life. Late in the film, the actor Peter Coyote reads a testament from retailer Dr. Robert Ferrell, his character’s real-life counterpart: “All the citizens of the United States have been turned into unwitting experimental victims of the mass-marketing industrial phenomenon which has no regard whatsoever for their health.” Sloan Science and Film interviewed Hershman Leeson via email about the case, the science, and her own techniques.
When did you first hear about Steve Kurtz? Just after it happened, most of the people in the art world knew—it was kind of underground information.
Human rights violations and personal tragedy are at the heart of the story, but of your three features, this is the third to prominently involve science, particularly biology and DNA. Is there something about the science here that relates to the science of your other movies? Perhaps a bit, but what was most interesting was the fact that Steve and Robert [Ferrell] were giving information that apparently people did not want known. My other films were more about discoveries and credit.
Was there something familiar about the scientific aspects of the case that gave you a grasp over this larger story of political abuse? It was more an issue of freedom of expression, consequences of repression, and censorship. The scientific aspects were secondary, yet important because it applies to the scientific community as well.
There’s a fascinating scene toward the end of the film in which a doctor begins railing against the genetic modifications of the food industry… That was Peter Coyote, who researched this extensively.
Ostensibly this scene is related only tangentially to the main story, but did you mean something deeper by it, by providing a parallel example of another large institution’s abuses of those whom one character calls “unwitting experimental victims”? I think it is precisely the heart of the story because that is what Steve and Robert [Ferrell] were saying in the work that was exhibited.
Were the scenes in which the characters and people talk as themselves scripted? No, we shot quickly—Peter Coyote [for] 40 minutes, Tilda [Swinton for] 40 minutes total, and kept the cameras rolling. They were so smart and interesting [that] it was more vital and lively to keep the improvised conversation in the film, and they agreed to it. Steve helped me write the scenes with Hope.
Were the re-stagings and the interviews with the actors meant to provide some speculation that Kurtz couldn’t provide himself, or were they meant to go in the opposite direction, and try to reveal the solid truth of the matter? Both; the challenge was that since Kurtz could not talk about the events of the day, yet we needed to have them known to the audience, the only way to do it was through a second Steve Kurtz and reinterpretations. But then that touches on how media creates identities we have to live with whether they are true or fabricated. They become manipulated truth.
Kurtz himself compares the film to the prosecution of the case, as though everything on both sides is completely fabricated, and it seemed like that was something you were trying to get past. Yes, and I was also trying to mirror the work of the Critical Art Ensemble itself.
There’s a scene I was trying to make sense of early on in which a teacher (Josh Kornbluth) refers to noirs as depicting a time in which everything was clear-cut in black-and-white. Was there something in particular meant by the scene? It seemed to me like the facts of the case were in black and white, but were you trying to draw attention to the compromises and equivocations of the students caught in between? Yes, but I had to cut a lot out. The attorneys were very careful so some things may not make sense. There was a scene of shadows where a student left the room that got cut, but in general it was comparing the McCarthy hearings to present day repression.
Were the sequences involving the students scripted, or were those based on actual hesitations of Kurtz’s students? This was absolutely true, but it happened to me, not Steve. Steve’s students were very much behind him. This was at the University of California, Davis, where students were afraid of the consequences.
Did you do any scientific research? Always. My Undergraduate research was in biology, my mother was a biologist, my father a pharmacist, my daughter and brother medical doctors. Science to me is like art, it is about discovery. I also discovered through science, I guess, things like touch screen, the first interactive laserdisc, Lorna [a choose-your-own ending movie Hershman Leeson made from 1979-1983], virtual sets, artificial intelligence bots. I love mixing it up.
Was Kurtz’s art exhibit, or any variation, ever allowed to be shown? No.
Has the scientific retailer been forced to stop selling cultures? No, but Dr. [Robert] Ferrell had to retire because he had a stroke after all the pressure. No one thought they were defrauded.
Has the film had any effect on the Kurtz case? I think it is making people aware of it. That’s why I wanted to do it now, prior to the trial.
What’s been Kurtz’s reaction to the movie? He likes the movie, but cannot sit through it because it brings up too many memories.
David Pratt-Robson blogs at videoarcadia.blogspot.com and is a contributor to Slant and jacques-rivette.com.