Life Into Art: Strange Culture and the Measure of Documentary Film

This year documentarian and film journalist A.J. Schnack (Gigantic, 2002, About a Son, 2007), in association with Indiepix, inaugurated the Cinema Eye Honors

for documentary filmmaking. The awards were born from a desire to see film craft, and not just seriousness of subject, recognized as an important part of documentary cinema.

Schnack’s reading of the American scene sees documentary film treated more as journalism and less as art. This, in part, explains the manner in which film critics debate the “ethics” of how Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock work (Super Size Me, 2004), presuming that documentary film is meant to be neutral and objective — “fair and balanced”– rather than a form of personal artistic expression.

Although it was not shortlisted for the Cinema Eye Honors, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Strange Culture, now available on DVD, complicates the terms of this discussion not only by being both “important” and “well-crafted”, but also by pushing the boundaries of what those terms might mean in reference to documentary film.

Schnack’s campaign for an alternative, craft-centered awards for documentary began at the end of 2007 and with the announcement of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) shortlist of films that would be considered for the feature-length documentary award. Schnack found the Academy, once again in his estimation, choosing “the conventional and the competent” over films that push “creative and stylistic boundaries or marked the arrival of a major new talent”. More particularly, he sees both AMPAS similar organizations, such as the International Documentary Association and the Full Frame Film Festival, recognizing films primarily for taking on “a sanctioned, serious subject” rather than for how well-made they are, that is, for editing, cinematography, music, graphic design, direction, etc. (see Commentary: A Dark Day for Documentary as the Academy Changes Course, Fights the Future on “All These Wonderful Things”).

Schnack was not alone in his critique. For example, on eventual Cinema Eye partner Indiepix’s blog, Danielle DiGiacomo quotes John Grierson, father of the Canadian documentary tradition, in criticizing the 2007 Academy shortlist:

I respect the hard work of each one of the filmmakers short-listed here, some more than others; but it seems the Academy chooses to downplay the very first definition of documentary, put forth by one John Grierson: “documentary is the artistic representation of actuality”, rather than just a high school film strip waiting to happen.

To underscore DiGiacomo’s point, the argument is not that the documentaries shortlisted for the Oscar are “bad”. In fact, the argument is not with the films at all, but with the selectors. In that light, the shortlist is a signifier of the Academy’s preferences for the artistically pedestrian and familiar over the innovative and challenging, and for seeing documentaries as primarily educative, and not as vehicles for creative expression.

The way out of this situation is not to reverse terms, that is, to honor artistic risk taking or verve at the expense of subject or “truth”, but to consider both when recognizing documentaries and their makers. For, as Strange Culture makes clear enough, a documentary can be worthy both for its content and for how it was made.

Strange Culture is grounded in events surrounding Steve Kurtz, an associate professor of art at SUNY-Buffalo and key member of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), and the death of his wife, Hope, also a CAE member, in 2004. After realizing his wife has stopped breathing, Kurtz dialed 911 for assistance. A paramedic on the scene noticed scientific equipment and biological materials in the home, and notified the FBI on the grounds that this paraphernalia looked potentially dangerous. This call activated Buffalo’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, and Kurtz was detained under suspicion of bioterrorism.

The materials in question were, in fact, part of a Critical Art Ensemble exhibition on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being prepared for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. While charges of bioterrorism were not pursued, Kurtz, and his collaborator Robert Ferrell, a professor of genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, were charged with mail and wire fraud stemming from the procurement and shipment of bacterial cultures. In April of this year, a federal judge in Buffalo dismissed these charges.

Given this outline, the subject matter of Strange Culture would seem to pass any test of “importance” that one might apply to a film, but that begs the question of the grounds on which the film might be deemed “important” in the first place.

While the story of Kurtz, the death of his wife, and the legal nightmare that followed is the main stem of the film’s narrative, writer-director-editor Hershman Leeson also develops offshoots which lead the audience to consider other questions and issues before looping back to the main line. Strange Culture raises questions about free expression in times of war, the role of artists in society, the particular realities of both in America after September 11, 2001, as well questions about the GMOs meant to be posed by the CAE exhibit that brought Kurtz to the attention of the FBI and US Attorney in Buffalo.

So, how to understand the “importance” of the film’s subject? The multiple meanings of the movie’s title demonstrates the slipperiness of the answer to this question. “Strange Culture” could refer to Kurtz and the CAE, particularly as seen by law enforcement in Buffalo. It could also refer to the biological materials in the Kurtz home, again, particularly as seen by first responders. On the other hand, it could also refer to GMOs as framed by the CAE’s MASS MoCA exhibition. From the vantage point of the film, it could also refer to the FBI and its treatment of Kurtz and his home, or more broadly to the culture of law enforcement and paranoia in the US, especially, but not exclusively, post-9/11.

The latter interpretations highlight one of the characteristics that makes Strange Culture distinct from other “important” documentaries, namely that its subjects, and its politics, are harder edged than those found on the Academy shortlist.

In a comment left on an entry at Chuck Tryon’s blog with direct relevance to A.J. Schnack’s assessment of the state of documentary film, communications scholar Patricia Aufderheide remarks, “Not only do documentary awards often reflect the perceived importance or impact of the subject, they often also reflect a tendency toward the sentimental, especially evident when the subject is disability, the very poor, animals …”

Steve Kurtz and participant in CAE’s science-theater project GenTerra, London Museum of Natural History, 2003. [Photo (partial) and attribution (partial) from Alternative Film]

Strange Culture is not simply on Kurtz’s side because he is an innocent man persecuted by agents of the state, it is also on his side because he participates in political art meant to test the fabric of American life and society. And while one would hardly refer to a film like the 2008 Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side as “sentimental”, critiques of particular policies, the use of torture, the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are more a part of mainstream political debates than are the questions posed by Strange Culture regarding the role and treatment of “the strange” in America. The “importance” of retaining a space for difference, for the marginal cultural Other, is less likely to be the subject of a broad consensus than is promoting debate over specific foreign policies or celebrating the triumph of the human spirit over adversity (poverty, disease, etc.).

Spooling together multiple narratives in a convincing way is one index of the level of craft in Strange Culture, but Hershman Leeson also skillfully combines different kinds of media to tell those narratives, including talking head interviews, excerpts from Suspect Culture, a comic book version of the events in the film, TV news footage, and, most interestingly, reenactments. Reenactments are well-established devices in documentary film, but are generally employed to visualize historical and/or discrete events, ones that are easy to fix and separate from the immediate time and space of the audience. Not so in Strange Culture.

Here, actors are used not only to play living people, but people who speak for themselves in the film as well as through the reenactments. Furthermore, the events grounding the documentary are ongoing rather than finished. They do not belong to the past and they cannot be historically or spatially fixed. The actors, notably Tilda Swinton, who plays Hope Kurtz, and Thomas Jay Ryan, who plays Steve Kurtz, are featured not only in their roles, but also as themselves, speaking about the cultural and political questions raised by the movie. They are full participants in the film’s activism. Ultimately, Ryan and Kurtz are featured side-by-side and in conversation, including discussion of Ryan’s interpretation of his role. The use of the imminently recognizable Swinton, and later Peter Coyote, who delivers a recitation on behalf of Robert Ferrell, further foregrounds the use of actors in the film.

Hershman Leeson’s use of reenactments and actors blurs the lines between “art” and “life” in ways that question the existence of that line in the first place. In terms of Schnack’s discussion of craft and subject, Leeson has produced a documentary that does not seek an objective rendering of events or issues. On the contrary, the film highlights its subjectivity, both politically and as a work of art (the DVD extras, particularly a pair of interviews involving Hershman Leeson, provide additional context for the creative purposes and choices that went into making Strange Culture).

After leading a seminar in criticism at the 2007 International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, critic John Anderson found himself unwittingly enrolled as a foil in A.J. Schnack’s campaign for the recognition of craft in documentary filmmaking.

One of the questions addressed in the seminar was whether a critic can and should recommend a documentary largely because it addresses a worthy subject. Using the extreme hypothetical of a film that includes the cure for cancer, Anderson concludes “yes” to both sides of the question. In responding to being taken to task by Schnack, Anderson writes:

… if an imaginary movie could cure cancer, the critic would, as a responsible HUMAN BEING have to give it a good review. And once you’ve admitted the fact that content can dictate your critique assessment of a film, you’ve admitted a lot. But of course it’s a question of degree. Most films, in case I need to make it clear, do not come anywhere close to curing cancer, but they’re well-intentioned, meant to advertise a crisis or issue that needs to be exposed, and thus deserve at least some respect — not the mean-spirited “criticism” leveled at a lot of perfectly decent films that don’t happen to fit a particular critic’s worldview, or biases.

For Schnack, the salient point is how this view on documentary criticism is based on “a singular false premise: Nonfiction=Journalism.” Schnack underscores this point by noting Anderson’s scathing Variety review of Jennifer Venditti’s Billy the Kid (2007), which the critic not only sees as symptomatic of a cruel “freak-show aesthetic”, but also as being guilty of too much manipulation of its subject to the point of becoming fiction. In defending his views on Schnack’s blog, Anderson argues:

…(I)f you want to create fiction, create fiction, If you want to co-opt the immediacy and urgency implied by the word ‘documentary’ it behooves you to follow some rules. Don’t mislead your audience and don’t use the cutting room to fabricate what you couldn’t capture in your camera.

For Anderson, Billy is a film that not only fails to be “important”, but fails to be a documentary. On the other hand, Anderson’s Variety review of Strange Culture recommends the film not only in spite of, but almost because of, its manipulations. That review is a good illustration of how complicated the relationship between documentary subject and documentary craft can be.

First, Anderson praises the film for being “urgently topical”. So, whatever license the film takes in its reenactments are immediately framed in terms of the “importance” of its subject. Second, he grounds those reenactments, as do the filmmakers, in the need to work around Kurtz’s inability to speak about his legal case. There is, therefore, a clear truth-telling function being served by the use of actors. He also notes that that use is made obvious in the film, indicating a manipulation of events, but not of the audience. However, it’s worth noting that the use of reenactments in Strange Culture can hardly be termed “journalistic”. And, indeed, Anderson praises Hershman Leeson for creativity that separates her film from, “the docu drone so often emanating from well-intentioned but formulaic nonfiction films”.

It is the opening line of Anderson’s review that puts the most interesting spin on the craft/subject discussion: “Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work exists within the cinema of ideas, a lonely outpost at best and one likely to remain that way”. This is an interesting claim, and one that raises the question of what kind of license is opened up to a documentarian who traffics in “the cinema of ideas” as opposed to, say, “the cinema of daily life” (perhaps where Billy the Kid resides)? The ways of documenting an “idea” seem limitless, but maybe the ways of documenting “life” are necessarily bracketed by “actualities”.

Or are they? How one answers that question would seem to shape one’s view of the meaning and significance of documentary film. Schnack wants a world where there are no limits on the ways that a filmmaker can seek to document the world. Anderson, while maybe not quite as closed-minded as Schnack suggests, clearly thinks there should be limits on what counts as “documentary”.

In her recently published, Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007), Patricia Aufderheide notes that debates over the nature of documentary film are nothing new, and, at some level, are always in process:

A documentary film tells a story about real life, with claims to truthfulness. How to do that honestly, in good faith, is a never-ending discussion, with many answers. Documentary is defined and redefined over the course of time, both by makers and by viewers. Viewers certainly shape the meaning of any documentary, by combining our own knowledge of and interest in the world with how the filmmaker shows it to us. Audience expectations are also built on prior experience; viewers expect not to be tricked and lied to. We expect to be told things about the real world, things that are true.

Strange Culture is a critical entry point into the current discussion of what makes a documentary a documentary, most notably because it announces its own subjectivity in a clear and provocative way. Is it “important”? Is it “well-made”? And which makes the movie an exemplar, or not, of the documentary form? Hershman Leeson’s film works the margins between these questions, and in so doing suggests that having the conversation, and not determining the answers, is what matters.



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