Bisbee ’17 is the rare documentary that also succeeds as a provocative cinematic statement. A lot of nonfiction filmmaking looks and feels like a segment on 60 Minutes, with the usual mix of talking heads and archival footage. Robert Greene attempts something more ambitious than that: He looks at the darkest day in the history of an Arizona border town, and helps the townspeople understand it better through a dramatic recreation on its 100th anniversary. This is an active, participatory way of understanding the past, and the depiction of what happened is just as important as how everyone feels about it.
Bisbee, Arizona is about an hour southeast of Tucson, and thanks to its copper mines, it was once the richest city in the state. But after the last mine closed in 1975, the town has been stricken with poverty. Old-timers still insist that the mines will one day resume production, which is a convenient way to gloss over what happened in the town in July of 1917.
Seeing unrest among the mining workers, The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) mounted a strike for better pay and working conditions. Rather than negotiate, the mining company ultimately had the local sheriff—along with 2,000 deputies—round up the “undesirables” in the city, load them into cattle cars, and transport them to New Mexico. This event is known as the “Bisbee Deportation,” and the vast majority of the deportees were immigrants from Mexico or Eastern Europe. No one was ever convicted in connection to what happened.
Greene’s approach sounds simple, but gets more emotionally taxing as the film continues. He develops a relationship with Bisbee locals, including actors and people from mining families, and mounts a recreation of the deportation. The actual event is only a small portion of the film, so the rest of Bisbee ’17 involves locals confronting the past. Sometimes Greene’s technique borrows from magic realism: There are long, carefully choreographed tracking shots where one of his actors drifts from one part of the town to another, and the shifting costumes/backgrounds suggest they travel through time. Some locals talk about their ancestors, like one man’s great-grandfather who was permanently separated from his brother on the deportation. Of course, this film has an unmissable political subtext, and to the film’s credit, Greene’s interviewees come from all sides of the spectrum.
There are some faces and performances that are more memorable than others. One of the deputies is classically handsome—looking like a movie villain from the 1940s—and he gnashes the scenery like a deranged zealot. Another man has an open, friendly face: He starts as an apolitical participant, but you can see real fury in his eyes as he starts shouting union slogans. The key figure is the man who plays Harry Wheeler, the county sheriff in 1917, and while he does not question the deportation at first, the act of recreation gives him a change of heart. It is strange, even moving, to watch these ordinary people—many of whom are not trained actors—disappear into their roles.
All this unfolds like the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, except Greene and his team are not pushing these people to their limits. Instead, the cumulative effect serves like group therapy, and an opportunity to reach greater common ground. Greene drifts between biopic and documentary techniques: He will show the action on the ground, then pull back so you can also see his camera operators who are in the fray. The actors certainly feel the cameras on them, but Greene does not want the audience to forget that artificial construct, either.
Greene is known for documentaries that blur the line between nonfiction and narrative. His last film was Kate Plays Christine, a psychological thriller about an actual actress who prepared to play Christine Chubbuck, a Florida newscaster who killed herself on camera in 1974. Bisbee ’17 is more ambitious than that film, but they both explore the implications of the observer effect: Like the actress playing Chubbuck, the acts of researching and internalizing are where the real drama takes place. To Greene, the final performance is an afterthought, the culmination of folks who have already done the hard work of confronting the collective moral failures of their hometown.
It takes actual empathy and courage to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. It is unclear whether Bisbee ’17 will have any long-term effect on those who participate, but everyone involved certainly has a different view of history. History is not just something that happened a long time ago, but a collective trauma that we experience every day, in ways that are both concrete and invisible.
Bisbee ’17 opens Friday, at The AFI Silver Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.