At the World Cinema Showcase, America’s War on Terror conspires to destroy one man. By BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

IF THERE’s one documentary that will cause you to furrow your brow and shake your head at the supposed “War on Terror”, Strange Culture will probably be the one. However, it’s not an Iraq-doco; instead, it looks at exactly how the Patriot Act, and the racial and political paranoia in post September 11, 2001 United States, have all conspired to basically ruin one man, Steve Kurtz’s life. When Kurtz’s wife dies of heart failure, he calls 911 for assistance, and thereby sets in motion a Kafka-esque assault on freedom of speech and his civil liberties. And he’s still to face trial at the time of writing.

Some facts.

1. Kurtz was creating an art exhibition on genetically modified food, and had some scientific gear.
2. He had some bacteria on petri dishes, all of which has been subsequently proven to be benign, and bought off the internet.
3. He had an invitation to his museum opening written in Arabic. The translation of the postcard is basically “come to my show”.
4. The FBI interviewed Kurtz just after his wife of 27 years died without warning.

That’s it. Basically this “evidence” has led to Kurtz being charged under bio-terrorism laws passed due to the global hysteria. When those charges didn’t stick, he was charged with mail fraud, despite everything basically being done legit., and the university who was supposedly “defrauded” refusing to press charges. To date there still hasn’t been a trial set, and Kurtz faces being sentenced to a longer jail sentence than most of the Enron executives. He was arrested in 2004...

The subject matter alone is compelling enough. Kurtz is unable to comment on many aspects to do with the case, so Leeson gets in actors Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan to re-enact some of the key moments. Truth and dramatisation are freely mixed together as a result. You can understand why director Leeson would want to involve the actors, especially to get publicity to the issues, but it does end up distracting the audience from what is dynamite material anyway. Some of the dramatised moments suffer from poor acting and scripting (mainly the secondary characters) which scream their messages at the audience. That dual mode of filmmaking was an interesting choice, but perhaps a little grating.

That said, the material itself is potent, baffling, worrying. When you see the real Kurtz, you wonder how a middle-aged hippie with Republican parents could in all serious be viewed as a terrorist. Audiences may wonder why the film is being made now, before the trial has even run its course, especially given that the US Supreme Court takes a rather dim view when things like habeus corpus etc are infringed. However, the fact something like this has reached this far, has involved so much money and effort from both parties, has led to another defendant suffering a number of strokes, and has dragged an artist’s name through mud, is probably an important enough story to tell as it stands.