During the summer of 1917, a group of striking laborers working in the copper mines of Bisbee, Ariz., were rousted from their beds by the local sheriff and his deputized cohorts, who wound up marching 1,300 strikers and sympathizers to a local ballfield and forcing them into boxcars pointed toward New Mexico. There, they were deposited in the middle of the desert with no food or water, and told never to return.
It was a brutal act, driven by corporate greed, racism and World War I-era xenophobia (most of the workers were German and Mexican). And it’s been largely erased from the collective memory of Bisbee, a town just miles from the Mexico border that now serves as a bohemian alternative to the more gun-totin’, tourist-friendly Tombstone nearby.
Over years of visiting relatives in Bisbee, Robert Greene developed a fascination with what has become known — if it is known at all — as the Bisbee Deportation. In 2016, he began to collaborate with local historians, civic leaders and Bisbee citizens to create a performance piece, a sort of
western-cum-musical-cum-truth-and-reconciliation committee that would be performed and filmed during the centennial of the event. The result, “Bisbee ’17,” is a fascinating exercise in nonfiction filmmaking as a performative, interdisciplinary, collective act, as well as a provocative inquiry into how selective memory, ideology, shame and unspeakable trauma shape what we come to accept as official history.
All of those forces come into florid tension in “Bisbee ’17,” in which Greene locates descendants of some of the original participants in the deportation, including a family in which one brother rounded up and exiled the other. The mines are closed now, but the debate over capitalism, human rights, patriotic duty and simple morality still rages, whether in the form of family arguments or contradictions within individuals who profess one idea while embodying its exact opposite.
That the Bisbee Deportation is still so palpable makes the resulting performance — during which neighbors mistreat neighbors while reenacting the events of 1917 — so upsetting and so powerful. Greene never makes it precisely clear how involved he was in the actual conception of the performance he documents, but that ambiguity adds to the overall strategy of blurring boundaries between history and myth, past and present.
Nowhere is that blurring more potent than in the performance of Fernando Serrano, a young Mexican American man playing a striking worker. Graceful and handsome, Serrano doesn’t consider himself attached to the story he’s playing out, but gradually the facts of his life create inescapable resonances with present-day arguments around immigration, identity and pluralism. There’s a gorgeous tracking shot in “Bisbee ’17” when Greene’s approach clicks into place, as we follow Serrano and his character through the sundry looking glasses of fact and fiction. As he did with his similarly experimental 2016 film “Kate Plays Christine,” here Greene pushes notions of documentary filmmaking and auteurship to their expressive limits. He’s clearly on to something, and with “Bisbee ’17,” it feels timely, cathartic and deeply haunting.
Unrated. At the AFI Silver. Contains adult themes. 112 minutes.