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Review: An American Deportation Re-lived in Robert Greene's "Bisbee '17"

The best film to date by documentarian Robert Greene tells of a mass deportation of miners in a little known event in 1917 Arizona.
Scout Tafoya
Bisbee 17
“Let us think of these things often and speak of them never”
—Sir Anthony Eden
The major sociopolitical difference between America and other countries is that we’re just getting used to having our atrocities filmed. A cursory search can yield footage or at least vivid pictures of the corpses of Europeans from a hundred different conflicts and resolutions, Australians in chains in concentration camps, mass graves in Latin America. The U.S.A. built no failsafe into its democracy, no chance another political party will finally show us the crimes of the last. No shift in power would ever put someone in office who would find photographs of dead strikers and labor organizers. There will be no reckoning for the dead communists buried all over this country.
Into this continuum steps Robert Greene, maker of documentaries that investigate themselves and their audience while they’re at it. He’s found something in Bisbee, AZ in bad need of an exorcism. Once upon a time Bisbee was the copper capital of the U.S. and it got that way by shortchanging the miners. When the U.S. joined the First World War, all industry was shanghaied into helping the war effort, which was always part of Woodrow Wilson’s plan. His step into the conflict was motivated in large part by his desire to line the pockets of the country’s industrialists, which makes what happened in Bisbee bitterly ironic. The Industrial Workers of the World showed up to get them fair wages commensurate with the hazardous work they were performing. The bosses at Phelps Dodge, the company in charge of the mine, flatly refused, gathered a posse, went door to door collecting over a thousand miners and organizers (most of them bearing Latin and Slavic names), put them on a train and shipped them to a desert in New Mexico. Their fates after the deportation are not discussed in the film, so the ominous tone is a bit of a cheat, but it’s not as though the events weren’t a travesty of justice. It speaks to this nation’s hatred and fear of the idea of communism that this event isn’t taught in history classes. If the government of the United States truly believed it had the right to do such things, they would flaunt such a measure. And yet there are people in Bisbee who still believe that the company did the right thing. Greene has caught the town straddling the fault line between the past and present. He hires hundreds of people to play the bosses, the deputized police force, the IWW organizers, and the miners (complete with symbolic brothers on either side of the conflict) and films a reenactment of the deportation and the events leading up to it. He shoots the tense meetings of the workers and the company, he shoots the miners walking out of the mine and starting the strike, and the deputize searching for the agitators all with costumed locals playing their historical counterparts.
Greene’s gifts as a filmmaker start with his ability to put his subjects at ease with their pride. In 2012’s Fake It So Real, he captures the stumbling, uncooked machismo of a pack of amateur wrestlers whose love for one another transcends their posturing on and off the mat. In 2014’s Actress he got a husband and wife to act out their divorce as it was happening. In 2016’s Kate Plays Christine his lead actress seems to grow to hate being in a documentary about a film they won’t make, and by the end looks ready to make good on the film’s promise of recreating a violent act. Bisbee ’17 is his best film to date, not least because it’s his most ambitious. His recreation of the Bisbee deportation and the events leading up to it have a self-deprecating theatricality to them that seems to come right of Berlin in the 70s. The actor who’s composed a song about the events and can’t help but teach them to his scene partners, despite the jaunty tune’s completely inappropriate placement in the somber scene, feels like pure Herzog. The images of a young queer boy slowly realizing that the deportation has a much stronger resonance in his own life than he first imagines feels like something from Fassbinder, not least because his performance runs over with naiveté and pathos. He’s like a doll made of wet clay slowly coming to life.
The film unfolds in six nebulous chapters, building and dreading what must happen in the final chapter. The deportation itself, in which a crowd of actors playing miners try to riot under the guns of the actors playing deputies, is one of the great documentary set-pieces. Greene purposefully leaves his cameramen in the shots of his actors being marched out of town down to the baseball stadium where they were held until the train cars could ship them out to the desert. It’s unthinkable that any world historic event, especially one of violence and suppression, would now transpire without a hundred cell phone cameras, so their presence doesn’t register as obtrusive. Greene happily confuses the past and present as the town, converted into his own personal ad hoc community theatre, prepares to relive its secret shame. The images of men and women walking past modern cars and shops into the mine or ancient unconverted property left over from the copper boom years are hypnotic and have the faint touch of magical realism. The gorgeous, untouched mine, like a mausoleum for industrialism and the thankless dead who once pumped blood to its heart, sits on the edge of town like a grave.
Like scorned lovers the company’s caretakers still believe at any moment they could reopen the mine and bring life back to Bisbee in the process. Naturally they don’t see what the company did as evil, either, but a necessary patriotic measure. Never mind that Wilson, on whose behalf the Dodge heads claimed to be working, and his government condemned their actions. No one stood trial, of course, but that’s sort of the point of Greene’s movie. The deportation is a grey area he wants to add color to, even if just in the faces of the men who live in its shadow. Near the end a volunteer playing a deputy runs to camera to get in an aside. He suddenly realizes just how wrong it was for Americans to put other Americans on a train out of town. As in John Frankenheimer’s Andersonville the images of men packed on train cars is enough for our synapses to fire in the direction of concentration camps. No one need say the words.
As always Greene lets his subjects get comfortable and waits for the movie to spill out of them. The only reckoning the miners and communists who were kicked out of Bisbee will get is in the hearts of everyone who now lives where those workers didn’t get to be buried. Bisbee ’17 goes into the earth deep enough to discover a hell of long unprosecuted crimes, unchanged prejudices, and capitalism still gripping a town like rictal fingers. The story of Bisbee will never be taught in schools, the faces of the deported won’t be printed on t-shirts, and socialists will never get a parade for trying to make sure wages are fair and conditions safe for every worker. There may never be justice for the victims of American trauma, but Greene has told one story no viewer could ever forget. 


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