History is written by the victors. That’s certainly true in Bisbee, Ariz., a small border town where, in 1917, a sheriff backed by local mining companies rounded up striking workers and exiled them to the New Mexico desert, never to be seriously thought of again. “Bisbee ’17” addresses that traumatic event in a bracing documentary that blends fiction and reality in ways that both complicate and enhance the material’s core themes. Premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s an investigation into memory, intolerance, corporate-labor conflicts and race relations that’s as audacious as it is timely — and further confirms that director Robert Greene is one of America’s finest new voices in nonfiction.
Anyone’s who’s ever visited Bisbee — a tiny community located seven miles north of the Mexican border and populated by artists and iconoclasts, many of them residing in homes nestled into the surrounding mountains — likely thinks of it as a crunchy enclave of left-leaning free thinkers. “Bisbee ’17,” however, focusing on the hamlet during WWI, shines a far more shadowy light on the town, famed for its subterranean wealth of copper, which was vital to the war effort. When the radical Industrial Workers of the World convinced German and Mexican miners to unionize and strike for better wages and safety measures, their bosses and neighbors viewed them as traitorous rabble-rousers. That, in turn, resulted in the Bisbee Deportation of July 12, 1917, carried out by sheriff Harry Wheeler and a 2,000-man posse supported by bigwigs of the region’s mining conglomerates. Seized at gunpoint by white armband-sporting gunmen, the powerless Bisbee proletariat were summarily shipped off to the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, via box car — a mode of transportation whose unmistakable associations to the Holocaust are bolstered by the presence of an Israeli transplant’s participation in the subsequent proceedings.
Greene lays out these particulars in a textual introduction, and then uses the remainder of his film’s two hours to speak with locals about the calamitous episode, which many Bisbee natives openly opine was a necessary measure designed to avoid further bloodshed in the streets — a perspective colored by the fact that these men and women are descendants of the deporters rather than the deportees. Moreover, the director casts many Bisbee residents in scripted sequences based on these incidents, often set to, or involving, musical numbers, and culminating in a dramatized recreation of the fateful deportation on its centennial anniversary in 2017.
Seguing gracefully between real/unreal storytelling modes, the doc — in tune with Greene’s prior boundary-straddling “Kate Plays Christine,” and reminiscent of both Errol Morris’ “Wormwood” and Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s auto-drama documentary “Spettacolo” — becomes an excavation into the past carried out by those most closely linked to it.
Tales of spirits wandering local businesses and Greene’s own use of dreamy transitional fades create an overarching impression of Bisbee as a place haunted by the ghosts of the banished — especially with regards to the Ray family, whose great-grandfather (a miner deputized by sheriff Wheeler) arrested his own brother during the deportation. There are also echoes of the past in the case of Fernando Serrano, a young Bisbee lifer whose central role in “Bisbee ’17,” playing one of the miners, dredges up painful feelings regarding his real-life mother’s expulsion back to Mexico on drug-related charges when he was 7 years old. In this and other individual snapshots, Greene deftly captures the way in which Bisbee’s history is inextricably tangled up with contemporary concerns regarding immigration, border security and demonization of the non-Anglo “other.”
Greene’s aesthetics prove not only arresting, but in sync with his larger depiction of a community wracked by dissonance and in search of unique ways to come to terms with its heritage. Lawrence Everson’s soundtrack is marked by anxiously strident strings and thudding foot-stomping beats. Jarred Alterman’s cinematography, generates unease from gliding pans and interview set-ups that begin before the speaker starts talking and end long after they’ve finished. It’s a formally dexterous portrait of a municipality and its people, using both drama and documentary filmmaking to look in the mirror, and — by finally seeing, and confronting, an ugly truth — discovering a measure of healing and solidarity.