Bisbee, Arizona is a haunted city. Once a prosperous copper mining region, the community of 6,000 a few miles from the Mexico border has lived for generations with the memory of one of the greatest humanitarian abuses in U.S. history occurring on its soil.
Bisbee ‘17, a remarkable documentary by Robert Greene screening this week at SPACE, tells the ghost story coursing through the city’s history. Taking place a hundred years ago, Greene brings the story much closer at hand, blurring the boundaries of documentary film with practices of historical re-enactment, psychodrama, cosplay, and group therapy.
During a copper boom in Arizona around World War I, wealthy mining companies essentially ran Bisbee, reaping incredible profits. Unions were strong — stronger than today anyway — but company power was stronger, emboldened by the justifications afforded by the war effort. In the summer of 1917, wages paid to Bisbee’s copper miners had stagnated, while inflation tied to the war had increased the cost of living. Meanwhile, working conditions were becoming increasingly more dangerous with ramped-up production demands.
With the guidance of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), who’d been particularly helpful to Bisbee’s lower-wage workers (disproportionately immigrants of Mexican and southern European descent), the miners of Bisbee organized. They wanted a flat wage system to replace sliding sales tied to the copper market, and an end to discrimination against members of labor organizations and the unequal treatment of foreign and minority workers.
The company refused. So by June 27, nearly 1,200 workers — roughly half of the workforce of Bisbee — went on strike.
The mining company’s response was unconscionable. Overnight, Bisbee’s sheriff (with the help of the mining company owners and other business tycoons) rallied pro-company stockholders and deputized its citizens to form a militia of roughly 2,000 men. The next morning, they rounded up the striking workers from their beds, corralled them in a baseball field and demanded they abandon the strike. Some did, but the rest — more than 1,100 citizens — were put onto boxcars and shipped 150 miles into the New Mexico desert where they were abandoned and left to die, never allowed to return to Bisbee.
Robert Greene, a professor at the University of Missouri (whose wife’s family has ties to Bisbee), often takes what might be called an activist approach to documentary filmmaking. His prior films are sprinkled with rulebreak (Actress, Kate Plays Christine, Fake It So Real, Kati With an I), occasionally deploying narrative elements and staged events. The tactic is useful here — at the beginning of the film, Bisbee’s residents gather in public settings to discuss the city’s uneasy history in ambivalent, anxious tones. These talks are interesting, but feel insufficient in scope compared to the magnitude of the event itself. There's a sense that the folks of Bisbee should go deeper into this story, but they don't know how.
So Greene pushes the issue, scripting, casting, and staging a re-enactment of the morning of the deportation and rousing hundreds of Bisbee residents to participate. As with his earlier films, Greene is less concerned here with rigorously documenting an event or personality. He’s more interested in the transformational shift within them, or the nebulous interior space between authenticity and performance. In prior films, where his subject’s been a single individual, that’s had mixed results, but it’s a brilliant tool to explore the anxious group dynamics of Bisbee’s cultural memory.
As many residents can trace their family lineage to foremen or upper-managers of the former mining company, the opinions of Bisbee’s citizens skew apologist. (Recall that the descendants of the victims of the Bisbee Deportation are essentially absent). The film captures this tension incredibly well, weaving candid interviews, a narrativized surrogate for the workers’ resistance (played by the young Fernando Serrano, whose arc begins apolitically), and varyingly awkward portraits of citizen-actors preparing for their roles. When they don’t speak to their allegiances, biases, and collective grief, we see them play out in the gestures of their re-enactments.
“Cities that are haunted…seem to straddle past and present, as though two versions of the city are overlaid on top of each other,” flashes an epigram at the beginning of the film. It’s a chilling sensation to see people attempt the task of dramatizing the same abuses against its neighbors as their ancestors did. Screening in another of the most aggressively politicized anti-immigrant and anti-worker moments in American history, it’s not difficult to see Bisbee’s sad story as an allegory for our own.
Bisbee ‘17 | Nov 14 | Wed 7 pm | SPACE, 538 Congress St, Portland | $8 | www.space538.org