Bisbee ’17 (2018)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 2018Cinematography by Produced by , , Music by Production Design by Costume Design by

The town of Bisbee, Arizona was once the richest in the state, thanks to the giant copper mine that operated for a century before closing in the mid-seventies. The mine is still there and its resources remain in the ground, and the town has avoided the usual death that comes to changes in a single-industry town by emphasizing nostalgia-based tourism (visitors come to see the old buildings and tour the inert mine).

Deep in the heart of Bisbee’s memory, though, is an atrocity that they have been avoiding dealing with openly until now:  in 1917, miners who went on strike to reject the harsh conditions that they were working under were taken by train to the New Mexico desert and left there without any provisions, a horrific cruelty committed by the mining company in cooperation with the local authority.

Today there are a number of Bisbee citizens who descend from these men, many of whom died or disappeared, in a number of cases we meet people whose ancestors were among both those who were deported and those who deported them (in one heartbreaking a case a woman whose grandfather arrested his own brother).

What the town has decided upon as a fitting way to spend this day of remembrance is to organize a historic re-enactment of the Bisbee Deportation, something along the lines of the live shows that draw tourists to nearby Tombstone but with more emphasis on actual history.

The process of putting together this strange, mysterious but emotionally cathartic centenary event inspires the imagination of filmmaker Robert Greene to create a documentary that operates on many levels: we learn the story of the Deportation from people who are themselves doing research and learning about the characters they have been asked to play, and we learn about their lives in the town’s present.

In some cases the experience of the re-enactment challenges and changes their lives:  one young man says he’s not political but then finds himself galvanized to an activist awareness by the experience of playing one of many immigrant miners who were more or less murdered by their white Anglo bosses, while another defends the Deportation as an understandable if overly zealous tactic for keeping the evils of socialism at bay (the miners were inspired to strike by the Industrial Workers of the World), but catching up with him after he has actually gone through the motions of violently evicting men from their homes and corralling them on railroad cars sees him gain a deeper insight on what it was that actually happened there.

It’s a haunting tribute to an American town past and present, filmed in a spare but gorgeous style that emphasizes the vibrant colours of the southwest.

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