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Filmmaker documents case against professor Sundance to screen story about artist

The unusual case of Steven Kurtz is still a long way from its conclusion at Buffalo's federal court, but a California filmmaker already has made a movie about it.

And the film about Kurtz -- a University at Buffalo art professor who faces federal charges for obtaining bacteria cultures and growing them in his home -- will be shown next month at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

"Strange Culture," a documentary featuring some dramatized scenes of what happened to Kurtz, was made by Lynn Hershman Leeson, an experimental filmmaker who has won a number of awards for her work.

Leeson said she hopes the documentary will find a buyer at Sundance and be released commercially. Even if that doesn't happen, the 65-year-old filmmaker said she considers the work an important one.

"Everyone involved in this film worked on it because they believed in it. People worked for little or no pay," Leeson said Thursday in a telephone interview from her San Francisco home. "I got involved because I believe the threat to artistic freedom is a critical issue for our society."

Veteran film and television actor Peter Coyote is one of the performers in Leeson's 76-minute film.

Kurtz, 48, is an artist and author who often uses his work to protest or raise questions about government policies.

The U.S. Justice Department has charged him with illegally obtaining bacterial agents that were found by FBI agents in his home laboratory in Allentown.

Kurtz's case has stirred controversy in local, national and international art circles since May 2004, when Buffalo Police and the FBI began investigating him after the death of his wife, Hope.

An autopsy showed Hope Kurtz died of natural causes, a heart attack.

Government attorneys have never accused Kurtz of harming his wife or of any act related to terrorism. They say they are prosecuting Kurtz because he obtained the bacteria under false pretenses, violating strict laws and procedures designed to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

Kurtz supporters say he planned to use harmless bacteria cultures in an art exhibit. They have accused the federal government of singling out Kurtz for harassment because of his political views.

The case remains in the pretrial stages at federal court and has not yet been scheduled for trial.

Leeson said she never set out to make an anti-government film, but she hopes people who watch it will be alarmed about the treatment of Kurtz and the First Amendment issues involved. She said that, in her opinion, the government probe of Kurtz amounted to "character assassination."

"In the film, I've got art curators talking about the questions that FBI agents asked them about Steve," she said. "They asked them if Steve wanted to kill his wife, and who Steve was sleeping with. They also asked, if a bomb went off in Buffalo, would they be surprised that Steve was involved.

"The investigation seemed to go into a territory that I'm very surprised it would go into."

Buffalo FBI spokesman Paul M. Moskal said Kurtz's work as a protest artist had no impact on how the investigation was conducted. He said people who have criticized the FBI's work on the case are not aware of all the circumstances.

"Our agents went there because of concerns about a possible biohazard at the Kurtz home, which was seen by first responders, including Buffalo police and firefighters," Moskal said. "All the evidence will come out when it goes to trial, and a jury can decide whether [Kurtz] is guilty or not. The fact that he's an artist has nothing to do with it."

Why didn't Leeson wait until Kurtz's trial was over to make her film?

"This is a film about something that already happened, and about things that are happening now," Leeson said. "In a sense, it doesn't matter if you wait for the trial. In a sense, our culture itself is already on trial when an artist is silenced."

Kurtz's indictment in June 2004 triggered public protests in Buffalo and a number of other cities in the United States and Europe.

Leeson said her film includes footage from those protests "and things that were sent to me by people all over the world."

Kurtz, who did not return calls seeking his comment on the project, is interviewed several times in the film. The film also includes footage of Kurtz's attorney, Paul J. Cambria, and the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., speaking to the media. Several artists who have worked with Kurtz also are interviewed.

The film was completed earlier this month. It cost about $50,000 to make, but people who support Kurtz donated about $300,000 worth of services and equipment, Leeson said.

Leeson said she is excited that the film will be shown four times during the annual Sundance Festival, which showcases independent filmmakers and was founded in Utah by actor and director Robert Redford.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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