'Strange Culture' May Grow on Film Fans

The film Strange Culture tells the story of professor and artist Steve Kurtz of Buffalo, N.Y. His work with bacteria and genetically modified foods led the FBI to charge him with bioterrorism.

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Next, a strange story about a professor who creates art from bacteria and how it got him into trouble.

Steve Kurtz uses living organism in his exhibitions to make a statement about genetically modified foods and plants, and what he sees as the government's exaggerated threat of biological warfare. But his unusual choice of artistic materials made him a bioterrorism suspect three years ago. He became the subject of a federal investigation.

Now a new film tells his story. And as Susan Stone reports, in a way that's almost as strange as the case itself.

SUSAN STONE: On the morning of May 11, 2004, Buffalo professor and artist, Steve Kurtz, awoke to find his wife had died in the night. Emergency medical technicians and police responding to the scene were apparently spooked by the lab equipment Kurtz uses for his installation art projects. They called the FBI and Kurtz was detained as a possible bioterrorist. The case made national news.

(Soundbite of news recording)

Unidentified Man: Through his grief, Steve Kurtz explained it was all part of an art exhibit about genetically altered food. Unconvinced, the police in Buffalo called the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Soon it was not only police searching his home but also FBI men in hazmat suits.

STONE: Kurtz's troubles also caught the attention of filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson.

Ms. LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON (Director, "Strange Culture"): It seemed that somebody should tell the story because it affected not just one artist's life but all of our lives. It's extremely important, I think, that people know that this has happened.

STONE: When the FBI searched the Kurtz home, agents found Petri dishes, books on biotoxins, an incubator and samples of mostly harmless bacteria ordered over the Internet. The materials Kurtz and his art collective, the Creative Art Ensemble, used seemed to have challenge law enforcement perceptions of not only what's art but what's legal.

Their approach is explained in the film "Strange Culture" by actor Thomas Jay Ryan, who portrays Kurtz in some scenes.

(Soundbite of movie, "Strange Culture")

Mr. THOMAS JAY RYAN (Actor): (As Steve Kurtz) It's not what people normally think of as art. We make art that questions the relationship between art, commerce and biotechnology. Sometimes we do installations, sometimes photography. You know, whatever it takes.

STONE: Bioterrorism charges against Kurtz were eventually dropped, but he still faces up to 20 years in jail for mail and wire fraud, tied to how he obtained those bacteria samples. On advice from his lawyers, Kurtz can't freely discuss the details of his case, so filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson faced the challenge of making a movie about someone who couldn't really talk to her.

Steve Kurtz did talk about the film at the Berlin International Film Festival. He says Hershman Leeson met the limitations with creative techniques.

Professor STEVE KURTZ (Art, University at Buffalo, New York): Once it was clear to her what could and couldn't be talked about, the idea of the film changed quite a bit and she was able to go to a lot more interesting experimental places that she probably wouldn't have gotten to otherwise.

STONE: The film goes into new territory. "Strange Culture" is a strange mixture of documentary and drama filmed on a shoestring. Steve Kurtz does appear in the film briefly, as do some of his colleagues. The film also uses news footage and some well-known actors to portray the main players in the case. Hershman Leeson convinced the likes of Peter Coyote and Tilda Swinton to work for minimal pay and let the camera roll as they talked on set about Kurtz's dilemma.

As Hershman Leeson edited the film at her kitchen table, she discovered strong content that was not in the script.

Prof. KURTZ: I think Lynn understood very well that it wasn't the facts of the story that are important.

STONE: The details Steve Kurtz can't reveal or that lawyers have edited out are less vital, he says, than the sense of what living through the ordeal of having his wife die, his house raided and his work confiscated was like.

Prof. KURTZ: She captures the significance of what the story is and she captures the affect. The rest of it, the facticity, which is, obviously, under all kinds of contestation, she let that go. And, you know, leaves something for the audience to try and construct their own narrative.

STONE: "Strange Culture" is not an objective document waiting until all the details are in. It concludes that the FBI's Buffalo office became dangerously aggressive after its success arresting the region's Lackawanna Six terror cell, and suggests that the members of the Critical Art Ensemble were probably being watched for their political views.

The prosecutor and the FBI were not interviewed, although they are shown in the film and portrayed by actors.

(Soundbite of movie, "Strange Culture")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As character) What's the white powder, Mr. Kurtz?

Mr. RYAN: (As Steve Kurtz) Serratia marcescens. It's a bacteria.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Is it harmful?

Mr. RYAN: (As Steve Kurtz) Are you crazy? Of course it's not harmful.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) What is this, Mr. Kurtz?

Mr. RYAN: (As Steve Kurtz) That's an invitation to an art show.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Is that Arabic writing?

Ms. LEESON: What film doesn't have a message? Film is a political instrument. It's a vehicle for information.

STONE: Filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson defends "Strange Culture" as a document of what she calls post-9/11 government paranoia.

Ms. LEESON: I think with the passage of the Patriot Act, that there was more permission to look for evidence of this nature. That's what people wanted. You know, we're living in an era of terrorism. And I think part of what was said in the film is that there are personal restrictions that happen when you're at a time of war, and this is one of them.

STONE: Off screen, Steve Kurtz's drama continues to unfold slowly. More than two years after his wife's death from what were determined to be natural causes, Kurtz is still waiting to go to court. He continues to teach and to make art that challenges perceptions of our strange culture.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Stone.

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