'Bisbee '17': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A bracing rejoinder to misty-eyed nostalgia for the "good old days."

Robert Greene's nonfiction film is a collaboration with the residents of an Arizona town as they prepare to reenact an infamous local event.

Call it a historical reenactment, large-scale performance art or, as one participant does, the world's "largest group therapy session" — in the summer of 2017, the residents of a once-grand Arizona mining center devised a series of events, some in collaboration with filmmaker Robert Greene, to mark the hundredth anniversary of an episode known as the Bisbee Deportation.

During that face-off between big copper and the International Workers of the World, a posse of almost 2,000 men, freshly deputized by the sheriff, rounded up about 1,200 striking miners and, because you can't be too safe, people who sympathized with them, and shipped them in cattle cars through the desert to New Mexico.

Greene's Bisbee '17 is a film that stirs up questions rather than answer them. It doesn't attempt to provide a comprehensive history; the fate of the deportees isn't fully explained, and neither are many of the company town's illegal maneuvers. You might call the feature a dark, stylized, American answer to Spettacolo, a documentary about an Italian town's tradition of staging annual plays about itself.

Greene is concerned with Western mythology and the interplay of past and present in Bisbee's self-dramatization. His intense focus on individuals can feel limiting in terms of the overall truth-and-reconciliation dynamic, but it also leads to some powerful moments. And the story's contemporary resonance couldn't be clearer.

The deportation was obviously a matter of capital vs. labor, but something else was going on as well. The vast majority of the strikers were born in Mexico or Eastern Europe, and all but one of the deputies was Anglo-Saxon. In the present-day divide, some see the deportation as a barbaric act of ethnic cleansing and others insist that it was necessary to maintain safety and support the war effort against the insurgent IWW.

Among Bisbee residents whose families have lived there for generations, some have ancestors on both sides of the dispute. One man arrested his own brother; a century later, those siblings are played by their descendants, another pair of brothers, and lenser Jarred Alterman zeroes in on the flickers of unexpected emotion in their eyes.

Greene, whose last nonfiction work was Kate Plays Christine, calls his approach to this hundred-year reckoning "collaborative, performative documentary filmmaking." Locals responded to calls for actors, and together they created scenes. Some would be structured and then improvised, others choreographed and sung. It's when the film makes its first seamless, haunting move between real life and performance that it finds its ghostly pulse.

Fernando Serrano, a young Mexican-American man who's not particularly interested in politics and who hadn't previously heard of the deportation, becomes a central figure in both time frames. As he digs into his part as a Mexican miner and discovers parallels between the 1917 events and his own family history, he awakens to a new awareness that's deeply moving. His exchange with a pro-roundup member of the ad hoc troupe is alone worth the price of admission.

Subtitled A Story Told in Six Chapters, the film is as much about the legend of the frontier and narrowly defined notions of American character as it is about the Bisbee Deportation. The movie's chapters are announced in a blazing yellow typeface familiar from classic Westerns. Alterman's widescreen lensing gazes past the inactive mine pits and into the historic buildings, while Keegan DeWitt's fine score is by turns jangly, eerie and plangent.

Bisbee's shuttered mines are now tourist attractions, with former miners dispensing hardhats to paying visitors, and the town has for decades been home to an enclave of artists and left-leaning nonconformists. By way of comparison, Greene offers a glimpse of nearby Tombstone, with its kitschy O.K. Corral cowboy shows and its Second Amendment fervor. The baby boomers who form the Bisbee Deportation Centennial Committee clearly intend their exhibits and performances as lessons in empathy. 

Whether many minds were changed by the experience isn't readily apparent. Greene doesn't analyze the general response to the commemorative events, but he captures the rising emotions of the lead-up to the dreaded confrontation, and the somewhat shaken reactions of a few people who until then had always sided with the company over the strikers. Having watched his neighbors marched down the road and loaded onto railcars, one man can only say, with certainty, that it doesn't feel right in this day and age.



Production companies: Impact Partners presents a 4th Row Films production in association with Concordia Studio/Artemis Rising Foundation/Doc Society Circle
Director-screenwriter: Robert Greene
Producers: Douglas Tirola, Susan Bedusa, Bennett Elliott
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Regina K. Scully, Laurene Powell Jobs, Davis Guggenheim, Jonathan Silberberg, Nicole Stott
Director of photography: Jarred Alterman
Production designer: Ed Briggs
Editor: Robert Greene
Composer: Keegan DeWitt
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Sales: Submarine

124 minutes