‘Bisbee ’17’ is a devastating portrayal of local tragedy

Thomas Forman | Daily Trojan Dramatic documenting · The School of Cinematic Arts held a screening of the documentary “Bisbee ‘17” and held a post-Q&A discussion with Robert Greene, the director of the film. (Thomas Forman | Daily Trojan)

More than a century  ago, the mining community of  Bisbee became the site of the Bisbee Deportation, a mass kidnapping of mine workers that one local compared to an “ethnic cleansing.” This American tragedy has shaped the focus of Robert Greene’s documentary, “Bisbee ’17,” which was shot to commemorate the event’s centennial last year and was screened  Tuesday night at USC’s Albert and Dana Broccoli Theatre.

“The broader context really is that Bisbee was known as a white man’s camp at the time,” Greene said in an interview with NPR. “But they brought in a lot of immigrant labor, so it was many Mexicans, many Eastern Europeans.”

The film follows the people of present-day Bisbee as they stage a reenactment of the terrible events that plagued their town. Although Greene and his team were the direct instigators of this reenactment by providing the equipment, finances and film experience, Greene said that the idea been brought up “several years prior” by a local committee.

“There was a committee that started to find ways to commemorate,” he told NPR. “And part of our original goal … is documenting some of those processes.”

“Bisbee ’17” highlights a town desperately trying to move on from its past. Its residents, instead of covering up the events that transpired, try to forgive their ancestors and commit to never repeat their past mistakes.  

Greene’s work has a pensive tone which persists throughout, but does not dominate the film. As director, Greene’s choice of emphasis is less on the factual details of the historical event, but more on its remembrance and reflection by the town’s residents.  Throughout the 112 minutes of runtime, the majority of the film is dedicated to depicting the cast members in their ordinary attire and occupations, having them introduce themselves, their views of the Bisbee Deportation and what they hope to achieve through participating in the reenactment.

In a town where history has been so reliant on mining corporations, Greene said that Bisbee would “literally just be mountains,” if not for the entrance of the Phelps Dodge Company to the area in the 1880s. The attitudes of the townspeople vary — from pro-Union activists and pro-Company apologists to indifference.

As lifelong residents of the mining town, many cast members are direct descendants of the men arrested in the deportations of 1917. Bringing family stories from either side of the conflict, the characters attempt to justify the actions of their forebears.

At the time of the deportation, the town was divided.  And in 2017, difference in opinion still exists, but is much more accepted. As the town’s  younger generations take on the task of hyper-realistically carrying out the actions they themselves “could not imagine” doing to each other, conflict persists. A family’s matriarchal figure said she is able to be encouraging of the reenactment, while maintaining that she is “proud” of her grandfather for acting on what he believed was right.

There’s something wonderful in the characters’ proclivity to agree to disagree. There is a scene where the actors, who were previously enacting deportations on a train while yelling profanities and threats at each other, immediately start to laugh and pat each other on the back as soon as Greene yells, “Cut!”

“The goal’s not to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be objective,’” Greene said. “There’s human opinion on both sides, and that’s worth knowing. I think it’s just human.”

“Bisbee ’17” was produced by 4th Row Films and will be released in Los Angeles on Friday.