Bis­bee ‘17

BIS­BEE ’17, doc­u­men­tary, rated PG, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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

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