In posing the question, what is a country, the documentary also poses related questions. What does it mean to belong or to believe? And how might anyone imagine another way to do either?
I thought [Seborga] was a nice example of a town that literally the entire population believed in this idea of them being an independent principality, of not recognizing Italy.
-- Jody Shapiro
It's an idea. Being a country, being in a country, belonging to a country: all of these are states of mind. Citizenship is also a legal matter, of course, and entails political and social responsibilities. But the country, that begins with an idea. How to Start Your Own Country begins in the Republic of Molassia, the smallest sovereign nation in the world, population 06. President Kevin Baugh wears a military-seeming uniform, medals and sunglasses, as he explains the national Peace Pole, "dedicated to promoting peace around the world." In this tiny country, near the border of California and Nevada, he thinks about the world. "We hope that all people would get along, borders notwithstanding," he says, "We are sort of one big world and we all sort of need to take care of each other."
Does it matter that President Baugh's fellow Molassians are dogs?
As he points out in the early moments of Jody Shapiro's documentary on micronations -- the idea and the practice -- Molassia has an anthem, a post office, a cemetery, and a time zone (39 minutes ahead of Pacific time). The flag, he says, flies over that square pretty much every day, unless it snows and "we don't feel like putting it up." Molassia is defined mostly by what it is ("No real negativity" he says of reactions to his country, "And I'm quite okay with being eccentric") and on occasion, by what it is not. "My wife took off and went to Texas," President Baugh says as he stands over a remarkable outdoor train set. "Which is why most everything from Texas is banned here in Molassia."
The micronation is an idea born of good will and faith, or resistance and sometimes frustration. As it's presented in How to Start a Country -- which screens 18 October at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with Shapiro -- the micronation is also an idea born of basic questions. What is a country? Who defines or recognizes it? Whom and how does it benefit? Some experts cite a country's need "have people" and "have territory," as well as "be viable" and "sustain itself." A country needs to be recognized, too. South Sudan is newly formed, voted by its citizens to be different from Sudan, and voted by the United Nations as a member nation in July 2011. Palestine, the film notes, is still waiting to be recognized.
Plainly, the process of recognition can be fraught. And the film gets at such difficulties obliquely, by observing self-declared micronations, like Mossalia or the Principality of Sealand (with a coat of arms and an official shop) or the Seasteading Institute (where members are planning the exploration and exploitation of resources in the ocean, via floating platforms). In each location, citizens or leaders describe their reasons for so identifying themselves, their pursuits of freedom, or coherence, or even disorder. The film also visits the Free State of Caroline, which recently claimed an island for its location, though it also proclaims itself a "state of mind, an island of people that can grow as larges as it needs to be," according to Consul General Sean Miller. Founder Gregory Green sees an art project in his country: "An artist trains themselves to think creatively," he says, his own art visible in the citizens who pose for their film image, arms outstretched and costumes colorful, "To think outside of the box, to think of new models and new ways of looking at things." And in the mountainside principality of Serboga, a knight named Georgio Pistone notes it has "instruments of a state," as the film shows a soccer game, a kindergarten and elementary school. The country even as the "capacity to create a hydro electric system," Pistone says, then adds, "Of course, there is the issue of size which is limiting." That is, 340 people. Still, he goes on to explain that those officials in Italy who say they don't recognize his nation actually have it backwards: Serboga has existed since 820 AD, a thousand years before Italy was established. The question is, does Serboga recognize Italy?
The issue of how a place is marked and known -- and who benefits from such agreements -- comes up again when the film visits the Principality of Hutt River, in Australia, a country with passports and a website, money, and stamps bearing the image of Prince Leonard George Casley. Having achieved legal status in 1972, the Hutt River Province seceded "on principal as well as necessity," explains Leonard, that "we had to use the law," when the family's farm (some 18,500 acres) was threatened by the Australian government. Since then, the country has welcomed tourists and stamped visitors' passports, sold souvenirs, planted wheat, and maintained independence. His brother, Prince Ian, adds, "If your economy is taken from you and there's a threat of the loss of the land, you're entitled to start a self-preservation government."
He wears jeans and a t-shirt, at ease in a chair near a stone wall, sunlight glinting through the trees behind him. As he sits in his office, backed by insignias of the country, as the camera cuts to close ups of stamps or road signs or monuments, the idea of the country seems more concrete. Seeing the country, on a road or from a distance, on a map or designated on a border marker, you see how other countries, more conventionally powerful and more traditionally recognized, are also based in ideas and emblems, understood and recognized because they have been.
This isn't to say that How to Start Your Own Country offers an actual how-to, or that it observes its subjects ironically. Rather, it presents them as individuals, some representing broader populations, some looking after their dogs, who have thought through what it means to be a citizen, to feel obligation or to see in others a similar inclination, to share a belief. And as they have thought through what it means to constitute an individual and a community, they have also come to embody their micronations.
In posing the question, what is a country, the documentary also poses related questions. What does it mean to belong or to believe? And how might anyone imagine another way to do either? As much as anyone has come to believe in globalization (concept or practice), or even in the global effects (in and as economies, climates, and political alignments), the micro remains a place to begin.