Strange Culture and the Limits on Documentary

In his Pop Matters review of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Strange Culture, Shaun Huston revisits the debate between A.J. Schnack and film critic John Anderson over the nature and purpose of documentary film.  As A.J. points out, Huston’s review is well worth reading, even if you haven’t seen Strange Culture (at the very least, it will hopefully inspire you to see it soon), in large part because Shaun uses Leeson’s formal experimentation to test the limits of documentary as a form.

Strange Culture focuses on the experiences of Steve Kurtz, an artist and member of the Critical Arts Ensemble (CAE), who became the subject of an FBI investigation soon after the  sudden death of his wife Hope.  After his wife stopped breathing, Kurtz called an ambulance and when paramedics found biological materials (which were due to be part of an art exhibit by Kurtz and other members of the CAE, Kurtz was reported to the FBI, who eventually pursued wire fraud charges against him (although he was originally investigated as a terrorist).  As Shaun points out, Hershman Leeson’s innovative use of reenactments challenges traditional documentary form, with well-known actors such as Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan playing Hope and Steve, in a sense speaking for them when they were unable to speak.  At the same time, Swinton and Ryan talk about their investment in the documentary and the issues that are at stake in a case like Kurtz’s.  Through these techniques, Hershman Leeson avoids sentimentalizing the subject too much.  At the same time, the film resists being reduced to “preaching to the choir” or offering simplistic appeals to social justice.  Instead, Hershman Leeson uses the documentary form and Kurtz’s story in particular to raise important questions about the role of documentary in intervening in the social world.  As Shaun observes, the film “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.”

A.J. revisited these arguments in a response to Shaun’s article, adding that while Kurtz’s story may be worth telling, “without an artist behind the lens, the worth of Kurtz’ tale may be lost on all but the most like-minded and agreeable viewers.”  I’m more or less inclined to agree with this point, but I would hasten to add that, as Shaun notes in the comments, that for a documentary such as Strange Culture, it does seem significant that Leeson chooses the approach she does for that particular subject matter.  I’m deep in the midst of syllabus writing, so I don’t have time this week to give this conversation the attention it deserves, but I think that Hershman Leeson’s film and Shaun and A.J.’s comments reveal that the conversation over documentary craft versus subject remains one that deserves revisiting.


  1. Mark Rabinowitz Said,

    August 19, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

    Seems we both picked up on this debate.

    Nice post!

  2. Chuck Said,

    August 19, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

    Thanks for the comment. It’s definitely an interesting debate, one that will likely persist for some time.

  3. Shaun Huston Said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    Thanks for the link, and good luck with the syllabi. Oregon is on quarters, and I still have a few weeks left before having to get down to that work myself.

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