Sundance 2018: Bisbee ’17, by David Bax
With shots that start before the takes do, showing interview subjects preparing or simply sitting still, it’s clear that Robert Greene, in making Bisbee ’17, is interested in something more than a straightforward account of his film’s subject. This is, in large part, a documentary about its own making, openly welcoming questions about how much the presence of Greene and his crew are influencing what they capture. He even leaves in bits of self-criticism, like when the man cast to play the county sheriff in recreations points out how little he resembles the historical figure.
Yes, like last year’s Casting JonBenet, the engine that drives Bisbee ’17 is a dramatization of the events in question. Where that film was prankish, this one is contemplative but just as unsettling. Just over 100 years ago, in July of 1917, nearly 1,200 striking miners and union organizers in Bisbee, Arizona were loaded onto cattle cars by deputized townspeople, shipped into the desert of New Mexico and left there with a warning that they’d be killed if they ever returned. This is known as “The Bisbee Deportation.” Greene’s film is told in six chapters, each digging deeper into the town’s collective memory, hauling up what it finds there like copper out of a mine.
Again, though, this is not a movie about the deportation. It’s about how Bisbee is defined by it and by its past as perhaps the biggest mining town in the country. Early chapters introduce us to how Bisbee gets by now, to the extent that it does. As one interviewee says, “A mining town without a mine is called a ghost town.” At least one business owner takes that literally; the owner of the Copper Queen Hotel, originally built for East Coast investors traveling to the mine, is eager to describe the various apparitions that are said to haunt the halls. The hotel doesn’t have many guests but those who do travel to Bisbee are more likely to visit the mine than most of the locals; tours are held regularly. Like nearby Tombstone, Bisbee survives in part as a museum of itself. Tombstone, though, with its chaps-wearing bandits with pop guns shooting at each other every hour on the hour, is dismissed by Bisbeeans as the “fake history” counterpart to their “real history.” Maybe, though, it just seems faker because those events are further into the past and have had more time to seep into the popular culture. Perhaps, with his costumed recreations and plywood cattle cars, Greene is ushering Bisbee further down that road.
It’s hard to imagine the Bisbee Deportation becoming quaint anytime soon, though. That word has so much immediate resonance today and many would and do argue the similarities don’t stop at the semantics. 90% of those deported from Bisbee in 1917 were foreign-born, mostly Mexican and Eastern European. It’s tempting, then, and probably not even inaccurate to say that racism and xenophobia were the motivating factor. But Greene would like us to remember that nothing is ever just one thing. Pro- and anti-union sentiment were plenty strong and, more importantly, a strike at a copper mine in 1917 was seen as a direct effort to undermine America in World War I. Townsfolk who had ancestors on both sides of the Deportation repeatedly insist, “I see both sides.” Greene even finds a retired company man who believes to this day that the right thing was done.
There are legitimate complaints to be lodged that Greene’s recreations trivialize events that tore families apart and left some people dead. But they also act as a catalyst. At the 100 year anniversary, when the film was being shot, emotions ran high; many had perhaps never considered how awful an occurrence it all was. But Bisbee ’17 doesn’t condemn them. For every gut-wrenching time he drops the sound of a train lurching to life onto the soundtrack, Greene also includes a shot of the local baseball field. It’s the oldest continually operating ballpark in the country, having opened in 1909. It’s also the place where the deportees were rounded up before being sent off to uncertain fates. You could find something cynical in the fact that the site remains a home of “America’s pastime” and not a memorial. But Bisbee ’17 sees something beautiful in it, a recognition that the good and the bad of our own history must be able to coexist. Focusing solely on either does a disservice to someone. Embracing it all is the only way to move forward.