BISBEE ’17, documentary, rated PG, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Most countries are haunted by the terrible things that its citizens and governments have done in the past. The ghosts are especially vivid in places where the atrocities occurred only one or two generations in the past — places in which the living have direct and personal links to what came before.
One such place in America is Bisbee, Arizona, a mining town near the state’s southeastern border. In 1917, a posse of around 2,000 people, at the behest of mining company Phelps Dodge and with the aid of local police, rounded up 1,300 striking workers, primarily immigrants of Mexican and Eastern European descent. They forced the workers into railroad cattle cars and deported them 200 miles away to the New Mexico desert, where they were left to die and told never to return. New Mexico state government, with the aid of President Woodrow Wilson, provided temporary housing for the exiled, but convictions were levied against the perpetrators.
These days, Bisbee is a colorful combination of old-time miner families who never left and artists and bohemians who filtered into the town in later decades — not unlike Madrid, New Mexico, albeit much larger — and this is the uneasy historical shadow under which they all reside. For the 2017 centennial of the deportation, however, the town attempted something unusual: to re-enact the event using local citizens.
This documentary by Robert Greene captures the re-creation, and in so doing, blurs the line between various filmmaking approaches. Some scenes allow Bisbee’s citizens to tell their stories in a strict documentarian style, while others portray the deportation by filming these amateur actors using the visual vocabulary of narrative storytelling. Many times, Greene even pulls back the curtain on the documentarian approach, leaving in footage of his subjects just before or after the take, folding in another layer that shows them at their most honest. Music also plays a delightful role — not only in the score Greene selected, comprising sinister strings that evoke a horror film, but in the folk songs the re-enactors perform.
It’s all in the service of a story that is harrowing and timely. In rounding up the striking workers — using what they called the “Law of Necessity” as opposed to an actual law on the books — the mining company, the authorities, and like-minded citizens took it upon themselves to decide who was and wasn’t American. If anyone didn’t fit the bill, they got rid of them. And so the workers’ side of the story has been wiped from the town’s history. Those who remain are descendants of the people holding the guns, not the ones on the barrel-end. As they are the only ones in control of the story, many longtime residents unsurprisingly feel both sides have a case — if not that the mining company was fully in the right.
If the process of re-enacting the deportation has caused any of them to change their minds, or at least to appreciate a new sense of history or empathy, then that isn’t totally apparent from the film. The movie ends by showing people playing on the very baseball diamond where the immigrants and striking workers were once rounded up. It doesn’t seek to judge, but it doesn’t have to. It suggests that where you sit right now is very likely the site of a horrible atrocity in the past, and the film as a whole shows new ways to consider how the past and present coexist. The future is up to us. — Robert Ker
Miner re-enactor Fernando Serrano