Film

A Small Town Reenacts the 1917 Deportation of a Thousand Striking Miners

The documentary Bisbee ’17 deconstructs how we perform our idea of the past as it resurrects an unsavory episode in labor history.

From Bisbee ’17 (courtesy Grasshopper Film)

On July 12, 1917, a posse in the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona rounded up over a thousand men at gunpoint and put them on a train to a New Mexico Army camp, advising them to never return. The reason for this deportation was that these men, mostly Mexican immigrants, were workers at the Copper Queen Mine, owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation. Due to difficult conditions on the job and the ramp-up in activity during World War I, the miners wanted to unionize, and sought the assistance of the Industrial Workers of the World. The town’s violent and malicious response, which broke apart families and communities, was run by no government; it was pushed by Phelps Dodge and carried out by the local authorities. The mass deportation was deemed “wholly illegal” by the Wilson administration, and yet nobody — individual, government, or entity — was officially charged in a court of law. This incident is largely forgotten, not just in American textbooks but even in the context of labor history. Robert Greene’s documentary Bisbee ‘17, made to observe the centennial of the event, meditates on it through modern-day reenactment and probing those still connected to it. The result is one of the finer recent American political documentaries, both revisionist and revitalizing. Released in theaters last year, the film will now be making its television debut on the documentary series POV.

Bisbee today is a shell of what it once was. The population has been in rapid decline, and the Copper Queen Mine closed in the 1980s, its gutted image a heavy metaphor looming over the once-thriving area. The town lies in the shadow of the popular tourist destination Tombstone, where legends around cowboys and the O.K. Corral draw people from all over the world with a palatable, whitewashed version of American history. For many locals, their hometown is where the more complicated history lies. Bisbee ‘17 is fundamentally a ghost story about things that have gone a long time without being reckoned with. The film follows the people of Bisbee as they prepare to reenact the events of July 12, 1917 on its centenary, in the process capturing their differing opinions on their town’s past.

From Bisbee ’17 (courtesy Grasshopper Film)

Bisbee ‘17 continually deconstructs the idea of performance, a longtime interest of Greene’s. His first documentary feature, Fake It So Real, is about an independent wrestling league where amateurs cultivate personas for their small but passionate audience. He later made Actress, about his then-neighbor Brandy Burre, in which she performs the role of mother and wife after leaving her acting career. Kate Plays Christine is a clinical examination of filming the unfilmable, with actress Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to portray Christine Chubbuck, the Florida TV reporter who notoriously shot herself on air in 1974. Here, Greene collaborates with mostly amateur performers, who speak about how they feel about the real-life people they play, as well as their processes of preparing for the reenactment. Some even offer subversive twists on their characters, such as a scene in which actors playing copper industrialists break into song; usually strikers are the ones singing about their struggles.

Greene’s cinematic influences are present as well. He has written extensively in admiration of the British filmmaker Peter Watkins, one of the best to blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction in works like like the unconventional biopic Edvard Munch or the desert-set dystopia Punishment Park. Watkins’s influence is felt all over Bisbee ‘17, especially his magnum opus La Commune (Paris 1871), which is presented as a contemporary documentary of the Paris Commune, which of course predated motion pictures. The tension in these films never breaks, even though their events have either not happened or happened long ago. This is the case with Bisbee ‘17, with the recreations of the clashes between strikers and company men carrying almost unbearable intensity.

From Bisbee ’17 (courtesy Grasshopper Film)

Many of the townspeople have direct family connections to people involved in the Bisbee Deportation, both victims and perpetrators. Some are still angry at the injustice, while others defend their ancestors. They repeat the claim that it was necessary to maintain the war effort or halt the spread of “socialism” or “communism.” There is something chilling in these defenses, long discredited, being kept alive. It shows the power of stories, and how they become preserved as beliefs as a means of self-justification within communities and bloodlines.

Greene cannily chooses not to explicitly compare the past to the present, although today just the term “deportation” cannot help but bring up images of ICE raids, overcrowded detention centers, and the destabilization of families and communities. Similar parallels arise when one sees how the labor organizers and miners were decried as antiwar conspirators and agents of Germany and Mexico who were determined to destroy America, simply for seeking better lives for themselves. Othering people who threaten the status quo works. In immigration debates, labor disputes, and various culture wars, the Bisbee mindset is as alive now as it was in 1917. Divisions, collaboration, dreams, nightmares, paranoia, land, facades, and capital have always been key cogs in the darkness of the American experiment, and Bisbee ‘17 won’t let you forget that.

From Bisbee ’17 (courtesy Grasshopper Film)

Bisbee ’17 airs July 15 on POV, and will be available to stream on the POV website afterward. It can also be streamed or purchased from other sources.

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