It’s 17 years after the beginning of a new century, and an American border town is split by political and economic unrest. Moneyed interests rally residents against an influx of recent immigrants, drawn by the promise of steady employment, using the specter of socialist infiltration to push for their expulsion—legally if possible, by force if not. People say they can understand both sides.
Robert Greene’s documentary Bisbee ’17 builds to the 100th anniversary of what became known as the Bisbee Deportation, when more than 1,000 striking mineworkers in Bisbee, Arizona, were packed onto train cars at gunpoint and transported across the state line, warned that the cost of returning could be their lives. Nowadays, Bisbee is a peaceful if largely deserted town, the kind of place where, as one resident puts it, people are “willing to water your garden if you water their garden.” But as the centennial approaches, old ghosts are awakening, and not just in this now-small town.
The spine of Bisbee ’17 is the preparation for the re-enactment of the Bisbee Deportation on July 12, which dovetails with Greene’s abiding interest in the way staged performances bring the codes of human interactions to the surface. His movies Fake It So Real, Actress, and Kate Plays Christine focused on people who made their livings on stages of one kind or another, but few of Bisbee’s subjects have much in the way of formal acting experience. What they do have are their lives and the stories they grew up hearing—the mine in which they and their fathers and grandfathers worked and might still be working had it not been closed in the 1980s. There are the brothers whose grandfather is said to have roused his own brother out of bed and marched him down to a boxcar, now cast on opposite sides of the divide. There’s the self-described company man who happily settles into the role of the mining-company president, reputed but never proven to have a prime role in the deportation, and the former private-prison guard who seems to relish the part of a sneering deputy just a little too much. And there’s Fernando Serrano, a young Mexican American with deep, liquid eyes who becomes the movie’s central figure, playing the part of a miner who joins the strike after a rousing speech by an Industrial Workers of the World organizer.
As a gay Hispanic immigrant whose mother spent most of his childhood in jail, Serrano is surprisingly unconcerned with politics. When he stumbles over the lyrics of a union anthem, an off-screen Greene has to coach him on the pronunciation of solidarity. Bisbee’s residents, many of whom proclaim themselves born and raised, seem familiar with the town’s history, but for many of them it’s a distant curiosity, more like the answer to a trivia question than a relevant and repeatable phenomenon.
Seeing the links between Bisbee’s past and its present wouldn’t seem to be difficult in the summer of 2017, when xenophobia and class antagonism were, as they are now, the twin engines of national politics. (A century ago, many of the immigrants labeled undesirable were Eastern European, a reminder that nativist sentiment remains a constant even though its objects may change.) But Greene lets the contemporary resonances reveal themselves by implication rather than thrusting them upon us. It’s not until the film’s closing minutes that one choked-up re-enactor makes an explicit connection to “today’s world.” Jarred Alterman’s camera keeps its distance, and widescreen framing subverts the documentary’s you-are-there immediacy. The movie opens with an epigraph from Colin Dickey’s book Ghostland about “haunted” cities, but the focus on empty spaces doesn’t just tempt us to see ghosts; it makes us feel like we’re the ones doing the haunting. Disembodied voices (including the filmmakers’) invade the soundtrack singing union songs, and the string creaks of Keegan DeWitt’s score add an occasional dash of horror-movie heebie-jeebies for good measure.
Bisbee’s natives are equivocal about the deportation—or at least that’s their starting posture when confronted by an outsider’s camera crew. But the re-enactments, including several staged for the film itself, coax them out of their reflexive neutrality. Some take roles against their own inclinations, and a few just seem eager for the limelight. (One suggests that Bisbee’s foundational trauma would best be replayed in the form of a stage musical, for which he offers to write the songs.) But many seem to be considering for the first time what it was actually like to have neighbors turn against one another, forcefully expelling a chunk of the town’s population and then beginning the long process of acting as if it never happened. The Bisbee Deportation hasn’t been forgotten, exactly, but like the copper still buried in the town’s abandoned mines, it has laid dormant in the earth, waiting for someone to come along and excavate it. Remembering the past is not enough to prevent its recurrence. It has to be kept alive.
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