Thursday, March 17, 2011

You are a country if you say you are

President Kevin Baugh of Molossia, still from How To Start Your Own Country by Jody Shapiro, 2010, 72 min

What makes a country a country? What makes a state a state? A nation a nation? And what’s to stop you from starting your own?

In a globe-hopping search for an answer to these fundamental but little understood questions of sovereignty, How To Start Your Own Country visits six micronations – unrecognized self-declared sovereign entities that you will not find on a political map.
Meet Prince Leonard and Princess Shirley of the Hutt River Province Principality, the second –largest nation on the continent of Australia; Salute President Kevin Baugh, the absolute ruler of the Republic of Molossia, entirely surrounded by the state of Nevada; say “buon giorno” to good folk of Seborga, a 1200-year-old principality which claims to have been included in Italy by mistake.

Through the lives and experiences of these micronational pioneers – whether farmer, artist, pirate or inventor -- the film lays bare the ephemeral nature of statehood while interviews with diplomats and experts in international law expose a revelation: there is no legal definition of a country in international jurisprudence. You are a country if you say you are.

But declaration does not guarantee recognition.

Along the way we learn of the exclusionary membership terms of the United Nations, the ultimate country club. We realize that the maps that shape our self-image as citizens are mere representations, the boundaries they delineate relative. Wherever you look in the world – from the high seas to forsaken desert -- there is someone with a different idea of what constitutes home. And an urge to put themselves literally on the map.
From the outback soil of the Hutt River Principality to the futuristic ocean cities of The Seasteading Institute, these visionaries are challenging the status quo, setting their own course and creating nations that you will not find in an atlas… at least not yet.
How To Start Your Own Country explores a concept most of us take for granted: the countries we call home. See the trailer here, read a review from the The Toronto International Film Festival after the jump.

Jody Shapiro’s ultra-sharp documentary How to Start Your Own Country examines micro-nations – 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.

Steve Gravestock 

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