The Act of History: 'Bisbee '17' is an Extraordinary Play on the Past as Present

Robert Greene explores a town's travesty in a way that will have you thinking differently about historical reenactment.

4th Row Films

The Bisbee Deportation isn’t really taught in history classes. Not even locally. Maybe a couple sentences stating that it happened. That in the summer of 1917, a deputized posse in the copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, illegally rounded up and exiled more than a thousand workers and their supporters, carting them off by train to New Mexico. What more would be detailed in public schools? Certainly nothing too negative about the mining company that continued to rule the land. And anyway, the people of Bisbee are as divided about their past as Americans overall are divided about so many things, including immigration, today.

We witness this divide in Robert Greene‘s Bisbee ’17, a film documenting the centennial of the Bisbee Deportation. Many of the townspeople weren’t even familiar with the events before Greene arrived and began orchestrating a commemorative reenactment. Many of those who were familiar with the story are sympathetic towards the victims. Others can see both sides. Richard Hodges, who plays Sheriff Harry Wheeler in the reenactment, tells the camera that he wouldn’t have taken the part if he thought the man, who conducted the deportation, was a bad guy. He was a complex character who’s been retrospectively villainized, Hodges claims.

Some citizens in Bisbee can literally see two sides, their families conflicted today about their ancestors’ own involvement 100 years ago. Greene introduces Mel and Steve Ray, a set of brothers whom he casts as their great-grandfather and great-uncle, illustrating an extreme case of political strife among relatives. The former was one of the men deputized, the latter a striking union member, said to have been arrested by his own flesh and blood to be sent off and never heard from again. Mel, Steve, and their mother represent neutrality, expressing empathy for the deputies doing their duty and the miners protesting for safer work conditions.

By the end of Bisbee ’17, which is to say by the end of the climactic reenactment activities, some of the townspeople revisit their feelings about the Bisbee Deportation. But that affected confrontation of the past is just one aspect of the film. This isn’t an American take on The Act of Killing and never presents anything so powerful nor so disturbing as that documentary’s extracted depiction of regret. In a way, Greene’s film is more ambitious and raises more questions. Ultimately, Bisbee ’17 invites a number of interpretations. There’s a lot of timely relevance in its themes, for instance, particularly on the matter of the displacement of undesirables.

But it’s not quite a film about history being repeated any more than it’s about the deportation itself. It’s not necessarily an allegory for today’s issues, either; in fact, the origins of the film go back 15 years, to when Greene’s mother-in-law moved to Bisbee and the filmmaker visited and became fascinated with the town and its backstory (most of Greene’s documentaries start with a personal link to their subject matter). It’s not a film totally tied up in its own contrivance, like Greene’s previous feature, Kate Plays Christine. Bisbee ’17 is primarily a look at how people engage with history, especially their own personal or communal history.

Photo by Jarred Alterman. Courtesy of 4th Row Films.

While the reenactment activities, which were concocted and staged by and for the documentary, are a very big part of the film, there’s so much more to encounter here. We watch a committee of citizens planning their own commemorative endeavors. There’s a woman shown creating an art project honoring each of the exiled individuals. We hear clips of an audio documentary featuring interviews with members of the community telling stories of Bisbee, and we hear parts of the Copper Chronicle, a radio program focused on local history that also serves, in repurposing the scripted and spoken words of host Charles Bethea from the show, as voiceover narration for the film.

Even more than the Wild West shootout reenactments of nearby Tombstone, which are presented in the film therein as “alternate dream history,” the dramatizations in Bisbee ’17 are just fantasy plays that function best as group therapy for the town, as one of its citizens suggests. Aside from driving home the Holocaust-like imagery of cattle cars full of people being shipped out of sight, the acted-out sequences don’t do much for the audience of the film on a narrative level. Just as in other recent films of its kind, including Kate Plays Christine, The Act of KillingKitty Green‘s Casting JonBenet, and Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen‘s Spettacolo, these bits are cold and calculated internal devices, theater for theater’s sake. It’s personal preference, perhaps, but I rarely see the value, as a viewer, in so much blatant performative artificiality in documentary.

That’s why I appreciate Bisbee ’17 for offering more angles on its story, more to think about that doesn’t concern the ethics of such machinations. The roundedness of coverage of the subject matter makes for a more conventional documentary, at times, than Greene has done in a while. What it’s missing, though, is the humanity we get from his intimate character pieces, such as Kati with an I, Fake It So Real, and Actress. Even Kate Plays Christine goes tight on one person. There is one individual in Bisbee ’17 more prominently featured than anyone else, a young Mexican-American participating in the reenactments who has an arresting appearance and personality that clearly cements him as the star of the film as a physical presence, but still, I never felt like we get to really know anyone enough on screen. It’s a film of looks rather than feels.

I’ve seen a lot of praise for how “haunting” the documentary is. Keegan DeWitt‘s screechy score makes it seem that way for sure, but outside the direct mentions of ghosts allegedly inhabiting certain places in town, and the specters of history, I never got that vibe. The contents of the film may be haunting, to us and more so to its characters, but the film isn’t so affecting. Bisbee ’17 is, as it should be, a presentation of the present on a surface level. That is not to say the film is superficial or to ignore that there is a sense of levels of the past, but fortunately, it doesn’t interlay or cross-cut past and present the way most historical reenactment documentaries do with their solid separation of testimonials speaking of the past and dramatizations portraying it.

As a cerebral consideration of how different people think of the past and engage with history, Bisbee ’17 is a consuming experience, and as a controlled experiment in getting to that experience, the film is an impressive feat of construction; Greene’s editing is so fluid that the pace and process of so much material doesn’t overwhelm. The documentary has a kind of laidback and casual sensibility that’s at odds with the deliberateness of Jarred Alterman‘s cinematography, in a good way. There’s breathing room, which becomes thinking room. On an emotional level, Bisbee ’17 may be inadequate. On a technical level, it’s extraordinary.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.