Jody Shapiro’s ultra-sharp documentary HOW TO START YOUR OWN COUNTRY examines micro-nations &”8211; tiny states seldom recognized by better-known, more conventionally established countries. Traversing the globe, Shapiro introduces us to several states you’ve almost certainly never heard of.
Somewhere in Nevada is the Republic of Molossia. Its land mass is 1.3 acres, it’s population six (basically the president and his pets). There’s also the Principality of Seborga, established in 820 AD as a reward for returning Crusaders; North Dumpling Island, founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen; the Seasteading Institute, an experiment in offshore living; the New Free State of Caroline, a territory-less entity created by artist Gregory Green; Sealand, an abandoned World War II gun tower in the North Sea; and the Hutt River Principality, the second largest country on the continent of Australia.
Populated by genuine eccentrics, How to Start Your Own Country is idiosyncratic and hilarious. The founder of Molossia (where everything from Texas is banned) was inspired to create the country as a high school student after he and a friend saw the Peter Sellars chestnut The Mouse That Roared. Hutt River’s leader, a man called Leonard, seceded from Australia over production restrictions. He declared himself prince and his appreciative wife, Shirley, princess. “It’s a much easier job than a farmer’s wife,” Shirley enthuses.
But the film is also very serious, laying out the oddities and ironies of statehood through interviews with numerous experts. Is Lichtenstein less of a state because the Czech Republic doesn’t recognize it? How many countries need to recognize you before you’re taken seriously?
Shapiro is steadfastly respectful of his subjects, tuning into their burning desire for independence. He has a way of making eccentricity seem fascinating but totally rational. Someone who isn’t represented by a recognized government has no real constitutional or international rights, and Shapiro plumbs these more practical considerations with intelligence. Elegantly made and well researched, HOW TO START YOUR OWN COUNTRY is an entertaining, insightful and memorable work. (TIFF 2010, Steve Gravestock)