All next week, I'll be bringing you reviews from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, going on in Manhattan from June 14 to the 28th. One of the first films I've seen is Strange Culture, a weird and unique documentary from Lynn Hershman-Leeson that tells the story of Steve Kurtz, a professor at the University of Buffalo whose life was turned upside one morning in 2004 when he awoke to find his wife Hope lying dead of a heart attack in bed beside him. The police and medical responders who came to the scene were more than a little alarmed to find that Kurtz's home was a sort of armamentarium of biochemical and DNA-extraction equipment, specimens of things as exotic as E. coli and other stuff you wouldn't expect to find in the home of an art professor. Before Kurtz could convince the authorities that he was involved in a unique art movement known as Bio-art, that exhibits real equipment for presentations on topics ranging from terrorism to genetically modified food, his entire block was being sealed off and invaded by men in hazmat suits.
There's a fictional thread to Strange Culture, in which Kurtz and his wife are played by Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool) and Tilda Swinton, but to say that the wall between drama and documentary is broken would be an understatement. As much as we see them acting, we see the actors speaking as themselves about Kurtz's situation. Sometimes we even see the real Kurtz commenting on their performances, as the movie is going on. We're told that the main reason for a fictional component is that Kurtz, who is embroiled in the legal system to this day because of his ordeal, is constrained from talking about certain topics on camera. The feds were never able to make any terrorism-related charge stick to Kurtz, since he's not a terrorist, but they were able to catch him on mail fraud since he and a colleague at another university allegedly broke some laws by mailing biochemical samples back and forth without following proper notification procedures. Kurtz and the colleague are currently awaiting trial sometime in 2007 on those charges.