How to Start Your Own Country
Filmaker Jody Shapiro picked up Erwin Strauss' book, How to Start Your Own Country many years ago and was fascinated by the stories of people all over the world who'd declared sovereignty over their own countries, with populations from six to more than twenty. Lou Pardi caught up with Shapiro to discuss the making of his film, How To Start Your Own Country
“I think all of them have different reasons and that was the thing that we tried to explore in the film, like it being a very difficult thing to define what a country is, there might be many different reasons for why people want to do it.
“Ultimately we found that especially in the places we visited, it’s a lot about personal expression, how people want to be represented. But some people do it for survival, some people have done it to make money, some people have done it for historical precedent and some people do it for expression – the way they want to be perceived by the world.”
Do you think it achieves those things for those people?
“I think it does. President Kevin Baugh who is the president of the republic of Molossia – he knows that if he takes his country a little too seriously, (it’s actually just positioned in his backyard, I think it’s got a population of six), he knows that if he takes it too seriously, that maybe the FBI might come knocking on his door, because it’s really located in Nevada in the United States. But you know, you go there and he’s got all the regalia and he’s got the flag and he’s got the anthem and he’ll stamp your passport and you’re on his territory. In some ways it also really feels like this really crazy art project too because he’s designing his money – he’s designing his currency and this is the way he wants to be represented and this is how he wants to express himself.
“In your neck of the woods, Prince Leonard of Hutt River principality, he claims that 40 years ago he did this for survival. He was a farmer and there was a wheat tax quota placed on him that would have destroyed his farm. He claims there was a loophole in the constitution at the time, that if your livelihood was threatened you could form a self-preservation government. That’s what he decided to do.”
Did he get away with that and get the outcome that he wanted?
“41 years later he’s still around.”
And he dodged the tax?
“He shows in the film that he has not paid taxes because he is not a resident of Australia. He did it for survival, he did it to create his own way of earning income and his own way of securing safety through sovereignty.”
You’ve met a lot of interesting characters obviously motivated by different things, was there any one characteristic that people who start their own country have in common?
“Well yeah I think a lot of it, especially at this level, it comes down to expression; it comes down to the way that they see that they want to control their lives. There is a bit of control; it’s a choice a lot of these people. All of them take it very, very seriously. Some more serious than others. President Baugh obviously likes to joke around, and has his own little routine when you go to visit the place and the population of six is made up of three dogs. He’s got his own thing, but you know it took me two years to secure an interview with Prince Michael of Sealand because, this is no joke, my VISA was denied two times. To go there you have to fill out an application and you need to go through the different bureaucratic steps to get to the Prince. It took a long time because they take it very seriously and they want to make sure that they’re treated with the respect that a head of state deserves.”
The First Look season of How to Start Your Own Country screens at ACMI in Melbourne from Friday June 10 to Monday June 14. Jody Shapiro will participate in two Q&A sessions following screenings of How to Start Your Own Country on Sunday June 12 and Monday June 13. Please visit acmi.net.au for program information and session times.