Bisbee ’17: Small town with a cruel past

B+ Documentary
Directed by Robert Greene
Special screening at New Mission, Monday, 7:00
Opens Friday

Written text on a red background tells us the story before the movie really starts. In 1917, Bisbee, Arizona was a prosperous mining town. But many of the miners wanted a part of that prosperity and joined the International Workers of the World (IWW). So the company, the sheriff, and a group of new deputies rounded up the left-leaning miners, as well as shopkeepers and other townsfolk who sympathized with them, herded them into cattle cars, freighted them to the middle of the desert, and left them “to die.”

A story worth telling, but a strange way to tell it. This is a feature-length film, not a tweet.

But filmmaker Robert Greene is more interested in the modern town of Bisbee. For a century, the townspeople avoided talking about the incident. An event that broke up families and turned neighbors into enemies was not acceptable conversation.

As the centenary of what became known as The Deportation approached, many citizens of the no-longer-prosperous town felt it was time to bring the event to light. So, they performed a reenactment of the deportation. I don’t know if Robert Greene set out to make a documentary about the reenactment, but that’s the movie he ended up making.

We get to know a considerable number of townsfolk as they discuss the deportation and plan their own parts in the performance. They talk about what side their family was on, and how they feel about that side. Surprisingly (or perhaps, not), many sided with the mining company. But just as many, at least among those interviewed, felt otherwise.

Of course, there was a racial component. A large percentage of the minors were either Latinx (the Mexican border is only seven miles away) or Eastern European. Everyone in power were Anglo-Saxon. Pretty much everyone who wasn’t white (by 1917 standards) was deported. There were many Anglo-Saxons among the deportees, as well.

The film felt distant and slow early on. You keep meeting new people, but before you get to know them, the film cuts to someone else. But slowly, bit by bit, you get dragged in. This is a town with a history, and despite previous suppression, everyone knows that history.

The movie really comes to life during the reenactment, which dominates the last third of the film. Here the documentary becomes a drama, with violent, armed men pulling their own neighbors out of bed and force-marching them to the waiting cattle car.

On the other hand, it’s clearly not real. These are not professional actors, but unexperienced amateurs wearing quickly-made costumes. Every time a “deputy” roughed up a “miner,” I couldn’t help worrying about the performers; I doubt any of these people studied stage fighting. And I sure hope someone made sure all those guns weren’t loaded.

And yet, because these weren’t professionals, I felt the power of the event. The reenactment meant a lot to them; some were playing their own great-grandparents.

But I wanted to learn more about the real deportation. No one in the film explains what happened to the many “left there to die.” Did most of them survive the ordeal? Did some return to town (despite a death threat)? I wanted to know.

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