Following the 1867 arrest on lunacy charges of Joshua Norton, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States, the Daily Alta California newspaper responded: “The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line.” Jody Shapiro, the director of How to Start Your Own Country, makes a solid case in his film that these days, there are at least a few other rulers who could join Norton’s ranks. A series of profiles of those people eccentric—or brave—enough to start their own “micronations,” the film makes the implicit argument that the state ultimately derives its power from the people, in either their acquiescence or their willingness to be governed. The discussion over what grants a government its legitimacy has come front and center since Shapiro finished his film in 2010, following the revolutions of the Arab Spring/Summer. Amid that violence and turmoil, How to Start Your Own Country is a great reminder that the establishment of some countries can be peaceful, and even funny. Following the screening Stranger Than Fiction Artistic Director Thom Powers spoke with Shapiro; Erwin Strauss, the author of the book on which the film was based; producer Denis Seguin; and film subject Gregory Green. Click “Read more” below for the Q&A.
[Photo: From left, author Erwin Strauss and filmmaker Jody Shapiro, courtesy of Simon Luethi]
Stranger Than Fiction: Erwin, let me start with you, because you kind of got this started. What got you interested in this subject and set you on the course of writing this book?
Erwin Strauss: I saw a movie in the 1950s called Passport to Pimlico. It served the function for me that The Mouse That Roared served to a lot of other people. It was about a person who discovered that he had a charter that entitled him to secede from the United Kingdom in this little neighborhood in London somewhere. Hilarity ensued, and eventually everything ended with a reconciliation, which always disappointed me. I wanted to see the thing continue indefinitely. Later on I got interested in the prospect of a predecessor to internet gambling, if it had worked out, taking bets by citizens’ band radio on a ship on the high seas. If I were successful at that I would have ended up doing internet gambling.
STF: So you were taking the bets?
Strauss: Yeah, we were taking the bets. But for one reason or another it didn’t quite work out. But I had done a lot of research leading up to it, and some years later my publisher suggested, why don’t you put it together into a book? So that I did, and it has sort of become a cottage industry over time. People keep coming back to me and asking about this or that, and I give them a little file of countries that I hear of.
STF: Jody, you came across this book and that’s what got you started making the film, is that right?
Jody Shapiro: Yeah, probably about seven or eight years ago I came across the book at a bookstore on St. Mark’s place, and I was just fascinated by it. I picked it up, and the title alone grabbed me because it was a concept that I never heard of. And people were actually doing this. When you flip through the book there are examples of people trying to do it. I think Sealand and Hutt River are in the book. The more I started talking about it, the more I started researching with Denis, we realized this is a pretty big topic, mostly because it was very hard to define what makes a country. Through the micronation, we thought, why not make a film that explores that topic?
STF: Denis, were you part of the United Nations shoot here?
Denis Seguin: Yeah, unlike most writers on documentaries I actually went on every shoot, just for the food alone.
STF: Can you talk about what it took to film at the United Nations, and how that went?
Seguin: If you are watching closely, there are quite a few coups in there. We had the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations. Hooking them was really big. Just to get into the U.N. is fairly straightforward, but its tremendously bureaucratic. Once we were there, they were sort of nervous about what we were planning on doing, but we were able to cajole them. At one point, when we were shooting in the General Assembly, I played a game where I was taking the woman who were making sure we weren’t doing anything wrong, and telling them a joke and leading them up the hallway so that Jody could set the camera up quickly and Gregory could do his moment. We didn’t want to go right up to the podium.
STF: You got close.
Seguin: We got very close.
STF: Gregory, can you bring us up to date on the Free State of Caroline, and is everybody here allowed to join?
Gregory Green: Everybody’s allowed to join as a citizen. All you have to do is send me your contact information, and you don’t even have to say please. We have a very open immigration policy. Actually, the documentary has been very good in terms of the citizenship level, we’re now up to almost 4,000. Actually, I’m an artist, and this project is part of a whole series of works that I’m doing. What I talk about in the U.N. speech of claiming all of the disputed states is an upcoming show that I’m doing. But Caroline is doing very well, and I’ve actually found two other small little islands that kind of fit the criteria to potentially become another state. But in reality it’s a large responsibility, and I’m not sure I want to do that.
Audience: What was the artistic vision behind the interviews?
Shapiro: Most of them were obviously the countries that we went to, and we were fortunate to get some pretty stunning places. The composition of it, I wanted to treat these leaders as heads of state in some sense, and give them the royal portrait kind of look. But just the idea of space and environment, bringing Erwin to the sea was, I thought, a nice touch. I didn’t want to bring someone to an office. And to contrast the leaders and the people associated with the micronational world, with the world, and then have the experts someplace neutral.
Audience: I’m a sociologist and we teach that the definition of a state is the entity that has the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. If I remember Prince Roy of Sealand was tied up by those German sailors and then the British actually rescued him.
Strauss: No, he rescued himself. They put him and his family in a boat that went to England, and he came back one night in a helicopter with a baseball bat. They showed the Germans being lined up there, that was his own doing. As the commentator noted in the film, there was never at any time the involvement of the British authorities, which, as he put it, established that Sealand was a law into itself.
Audience: How come that definition was never mentioned in the film.
Seguin: Strictly speaking, there is no legal definition. So what we refer to, and what a lot of the micronation community refers to is the Montevideo Accord. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was trying to assert himself globally, he convened a number of nations of the New World, if you want to use that expression. Erwin, you wrote about this—
Strauss: The current codification of the line goes back to the Middle Ages. One of the principles was a territory, a population and defense of the territory by the use of arms.
Audience: How did you choose which micronations to film, and were there any that you shot that you didn’t end up using?
Shapiro: There are a lot out there, you can Google micronations and a lot will pop up. They range from kids and their parents to places like Hutt River. We had a big list and went through it. I was looking for two things. One, the story behind it, because ultimately, there were a lot of compelling stories that we wanted to hear. Each place represents a different idea of what a country could be. Each person had a very unique story to tell. Just because of budget and time, we went to about 16 different countries to shoot the six micronations that we went to. We had to really narrow it down, so basically everything that we shot is on there.
Strauss: You also said you had a preference for the places where the food was good.
Schapiro: Yeah, if you ever go to Seborga, there’s a great restaurant there.
Audience: I was wondering about Sealand. Did you get in there, and what was it like in there?
Shapiro: I’ll be honest. Unfortunately, Sealand had a fire right before I got there. Which was okay because Sealand plays a big part in the history of micronations, so I wanted to portray them through the stock footage that we had. So we couldn’t get up to the tower. But to even get in the waters we had to apply for a visa three times, we got denied. So it took us three years, and that’s not a joke. If you ever write them and want to go visit, they’re pretty strict. They finally came around and we shot them in their home in the U.K.
Audience: What are some of the interesting stories that you decided not to go with for whatever reason? Why did you decide not to focus on the larger micronations?
Shapiro: Again, it was something that we thought about a lot, where do you draw the line. I wanted this to be about the micronational world, these personal stories, and about what these places represent. The minute we start getting into states that are really fighting for something, politics comes into the way. I wanted to show that the idea of country could be a lot more than politics and borders and policies, so we wanted to keep it on that front.
Strauss: That’s why the book is called “How to Start Your Own Country.” My criterion was something that some individual or small group could actually intentionally undertake to do, rather than some existing ethnic group that lived in a territory and then decides to secede. That’s a whole different dynamic, and is not much help to the average reader interested in starting his own country.
Gregory: I would add that it’s also about each one of you rethinking your own relationship to your own state, your own nation, and the relationship between nations in general. Globally, things are changing a lot, from individuals to small groups. Countries have been changing regularly without the use of violence—the Arab Spring, the Arab Summer. There’s endless examples of that. A lot of that is a single one of you stepping back and rethinking how the world works.
Audience: As a fellow Canadian, I want to know if the Quebec issue had any effect on the film, and the other question is, do any women start countries?
Seguin: First of all, Quebec was tricky, and we did actually have a sit-down interview with the Canadian ambassador to the U.N. And before we even started rolling he said, I just want to say one thing, I can’t talk about Quebec. That did sort of set it up for us that we wouldn’t talk about Quebec. And also, we had some interesting, individual stories to tell. In terms of women, I think it’s safe to say that this is a lot about royal sceptres, big egos. Women basically have more common sense.
Audience: It appears that the host countries, I guess you’d call them, tolerate the micronations. Can you expound on that?
Shapiro: It did vary pretty widely, and Kevin Baugh, the president of Molossia, was very circumspect about what he did and did not do. He said he did everything up to the point where he thinks the FBI is going to roll up his driveway. He really doesn’t push it. Prince Leonard [of Hutt River] pushes it. I think he did one day in prison in the early 70s, and the MP Barry Hoss told us they made a mistake with Hutt River. They thought it was a joke, they had written the letters, Dear Prince Leonard, and it came back and bit Australia in the ass. They said, we made a mistake, we treated him as a joke and the joke has backfired, so now let’s just ignore him. Similarly, in England, we tried to talk to the foreign office. And of course, the foreign office says it’s got nothing to do with us, you need to talk to the home office. And the home office said it’s got nothing to do with us because we don’t acknowledge any of that.
Strauss: With Sealand, the courts decided that Sealand was outside of British jurisdiction. It was a rather low court and the government could have easily appealed it. But by that point the tabloids had gotten ahold of it, and the government was going to be made a laughingstock, and they reacted the same way as Australia and just ignored it.
STF: Erwin, I don’t know how much of a chance you’ve had to visit some of these countries. Was the film eye-opening to you in the ability to vicariously travel to some of these places?
Strauss: Yes, I hadn’t been to any of these countries, so it was interesting to actually see things I had researched in the library and written about. And here they are, living, breathing people out there doing things.
Audience: There was a riot in Australia a few years back where people hadn’t paid their taxes, and then barricaded their land and declared independence. The federal government arrested the farmer, who wrote a letter to the United Nations saying his country had been invaded, and could the Security Council do something about it. His pleas were ignored and the guy is in jail.
Strauss: I’m not familiar with that situation. I think because Prince Leonard is not actively farming, and because he has various legal angles, that’s why he doesn’t pay any taxes. Not because they think he doesn’t live in Australia anymore. As I’ve said, as far as farming goes, he’s semi-retired and probably lives off of savings, and probably has very little taxable income to report.
Audience: Have you renounced your U.S. citizenship? And if you do, who takes you then?
Green: No, I haven’t. But I will say about the previous question about the FBI, I have a massive FBI file, but it’s not because of the micronation.
Strauss: As for the legal implication, you go to any embassy or consulate of the U.S. and declare that you are no longer legally a citizen. Where you go after that, that’s your problem from then on. There was one famous case—the Dart family which made its fortune making foam cups. He cut a deal with Costa Rica, officially renounced his citizenship, became a citizen of Costa Rica and was appointed the consul of Costa Rica in Orlando, which is where he lived. There he was, living in the U.S. and not a U.S. citizen or subject to U.S. taxes. This lasted until somebody in the State Department got wind of it and declared him persona non grata as the consul of Costa Rica. Usually the U.S. is pretty lenient about letting people become Americans again, you’ve got to give them credit for that. When I was working on this gambling ship project, the question of whether I might need to do that arose if the U.S. started to crack down. Costa Rica is known as a very friendly country for that sort of thing. For a few dollars more they’ll give you a passport and citizenship, they’re not particularly picky about it.
[Q&A is edited for length and clarity]