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50th San Francisco International Film Festival at PFA

Tuesday, May 8, 2007
7:00 p.m. Strange Culture
Lynn Hershman Leeson (U.S., 2006)

Everything changed for conceptual artist Steve Kurtz on the morning of May 11, 2004, when he awoke to discover that his forty-five-year-old wife, Hope, had died in her sleep. A domestic tragedy turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare after the paramedics he summoned, alarmed by the Petri dishes, scientific equipment, and books on bioterrorism in his house, reported him to the FBI as a suspected bioterrorist. The founders of a collective of performance artists called the Critical Art Ensemble, Kurtz and his wife had been working on an installation about the emergence of biotechnology for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The live cultures they were using were as harmless as yogurt, but a Hazmat team from Quantico descended on their home, arrested Kurtz, carried away his equipment, computers, and papers, and seized his wife's body from the coroner. Lynn Hershman Leeson's unconventional documentary, which features Kurtz himself and actors Tilda Swinton, Peter Coyote and Josh Kornbluth, combines reenactments and interviews to tell a tale of government overreaction that would be comic if it weren't true and were not still going on nearly three years later. Though cleared of bioterrorism charges, Kurtz still faces federal indictments that could result in a long prison term. Strange Culture is a story not only of post-9/11 paranoia but also of the clash between the "strange culture" of art and dissent and a Justice Department unwilling to admit it has made a mistake.

—Pamela Troy

• Written by Hershman Leeson. Photographed by Hiro Narita. (76 mins)