A forced exodus haunts a border town’s past. Can a new documentary force a reckoning?
On June 26, 1917, copper miners in the border town of Bisbee, Arizona, went on strike. The companies they worked for had refused demands put forth by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for higher pay, safer working conditions, and an end to wage discrimination against Mexican miners and union members. Rather than negotiate, the companies worked with the local sheriff to deputize a “posse” of 2,000 men to deport the strikers. Early in the morning on July 12, the vigilantes roused the miners from their beds at gunpoint, loaded them onto cattle cars, and sent them on a sixteen-hour, 200-mile trip across state lines to Columbus, New Mexico. They were told never to return, on threat of death. One hundred years later the town of Bisbee staged a reenactment of the deportation in collaboration with filmmaker Robert Greene, whose Bisbee ’17 was released in theaters last September.
This isn’t the first violent mining conflict captured on film. Barbara Kopple’s celebrated 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. followed Appalachian mining families fighting an intransigent coal company. More recently, a number of movies have sympathetically examined the dramatic events and devastating aftermath of the 1984–85 UK coal miners’ strike, the industrial conflict whose defeat signaled the triumph of neoliberalism in Great Britain. In one of the earliest examples, the 2001 TV documentary The Battle of Orgreave, director Mike Figgis filmed conceptual artist Jeremy Deller’s reenactment of a police attack on strikers trying to block scabs from accessing a coking plant. The documentary combined shots of the recreated battle scenes with interviews with participants, including many former miners.
Bisbee ’17 is a more conceptually ambitious movie, absent the pacing and structure of typical historical documentary and brimming with contemporary artistic concerns. The local participants—artists and historians, an ex-cop and a retired prison guard, a restaurant worker and a radio host, transplants and old-timers descended from miners and vigilantes—play historical characters, but these portrayals are refracted through their struggles to confront a difficult past. Bisbee ’17 both documents and contributes to an open-ended civic project. Instead of trying to tell the definitive story of the Bisbee Deportation, it forces the politically repressed to the surface.
Greene elides the two common meanings of “reenactment”—a public historical pageant and a supplement to archival documentary footage—and pushes them into uncanny territory. He embraces anachronism: cars drive by, neon bar signs glow. In one scene characters change out of modern clothes into costume while walking through a long tracking shot and singing a labor ballad. They talk to the camera about the deportation while the reenactment plays out behind them. Bisbee ’17 depicts a mostly forgotten atrocity and how a community memorialized its centennial, but its story unfolds like a dream.
Greene’s previous movie, Kate Plays Christine, shared this surreal quality, but to different effect. It follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, a TV anchor in Sarasota, Florida, who shot herself live on air in 1974. We gradually come to understand that there is no outside project in which Sheil is portraying Chubbuck. Instead, Greene presents fragments of a biopic. The “acting” emerges out of the preparation, often within the same scene.
Greene is far from alone in pushing the documentary form beyond its conventional bounds. Many recent nonfiction movies have incorporated fictional and scripted elements, including some innovative uses of recreation. In these films, reenactment isn’t used to fill in the blanks or to color in pre-cinematic times, but to convey the problems inherent in trying to construct authoritative historical narrative. One prominent example, Sarah Polley’s sensitive 2012 film Stories We Tell, examines the filmmaker’s complex family history through interviews and snippets of old home movies interspersed with new clips of actors playing her family members, both filmed in Super 8. The mix of footage speaks to Polley’s thematic ambitions. “[T]he truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down,” she tells a family member, “and many of our stories end up with shifts and fictions in them, mostly unintended.”
Casting JonBenet (2017) takes on another complex family story, but as seen through the public eye. It consists mostly of casting call interviews for a movie that, like in Kate Plays Christine, exists only within the documentary. Director Kitty Green prompts the would-be actors to share their opinions about the infamous murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey. In the final shot, she pans over all the people who auditioned to play Ramsey’s parents as they speak in overlapping dialogue, suggesting that the babble of conspiracy theory is a more essential quality of Ramsey’s story than the unknowable answer to who killed her.
“Hybridisation, innovation, heterodoxy and integration have been crucial to the advancement of nonfiction form since the beginning,” Robert Greene wrote in 2014. But a recent crop of filmmakers has put renewed emphasis on these elements. An “era of great phoniness in our culture and politics,” Greene wrote elsewhere, in which “our ordinary experience is littered with blunt, alienating performances” has sent us “searching for something genuine.” The obvious fakeness of the most popular “nonfiction” entertainment today—reality TV—has rippled out from the mainstream to the festival circuit. Filmmakers bring the fictional qualities of documentary closer and more consciously to the surface as a way to signal their distance from more manipulative media. These films reveal their tricks, which is a trick in itself.
Greene has expressed some exasperation at the overuse of these techniques and devices. Rather than reject them, however, he insists that they serve serious thematic considerations. In the case of Bisbee ’17, that means using performance to expose the violent currents running through American cultural myth. The movie exhibits little of the hardboiled realism so often found in artistic projects focused on working-class struggle. In turning its gaze to the dream worlds of exploitation and liberation, its essence is closer to Sorry to Bother You than more traditional historical storytelling.
Bisbee ’17 raises an issue long at the heart of the avant-garde—the connection between radical content and radical form. Peter Watkins, a filmmaker whose movies also occupy a middle ground between fiction and nonfiction (and whom Greene once called a “filmmaking hero”), is one of the most prominent contemporary advocates for making that connection. His most recent film, La Commune (Paris, 1871), released in 2000, recreates the Paris Commune with non-professional actors in an unrealistic set. In its opening shot, two of these actors mention Watkins and his production company by name before narrating a tour of the building where La Commune was filmed. The camera doesn’t break for nearly four minutes—the first of many long shots over the course of the movie’s nearly six-hour running time.
Watkins classifies much of his work as an effort to break from what he calls the “Monoform”—a media style comprised of “rapidly edited and fragmented images accompanied by a dense bombardment of sound, all held together by the classical narrative structure.” This style overwhelms and sedates the audience, he argues, replicating the hierarchical relations between corporations and the state, and the broader public. By exposing the seams in his own work, slowing things down, and relinquishing directorial control, Watkins aims to create a more democratic cinema and media culture.
Greene gestures at this approach. We see and hear him occasionally in Bisbee ’17, and he films someone suggesting that the idea to reenact the deportation came from locals. But Greene and his cinematographer Jarred Alterman clearly still maintain artistic authority. They frame shots of their subjects like long-distance portraits; they replicate iconic cinematic imagery. One close-up of swarming ants evokes both the cruelty of The Wild Bunch and the nightmare grotesque of Blue Velvet.
One of Bisbee ’17’s most arresting sequences features local musician Becky Reyes singing “The Ballad of Ben Johnson,” a mournful song she wrote about a deported miner. As she sings, the dissonant strings that score the movie fade in. We see scenes of the cattle cars for the deportation being constructed, the hanging of centennial banners around town, and reenactors beginning their roundup of strikers, one of whom is filmed standing pensively in his twenty-first-century clothes. This montage brings together not only past and present, fact and fiction, but experimental film and Hollywood drama. While Peter Watkins’s formally daring and often jarring work leans heavily on deliberate alienation, Greene disorients his viewers only to pull them back in with the affective language of the best-crafted commercial cinema.
Bisbee’s copper mines closed in the 1970s. While hundreds of former mining communities in Arizona are now ghost towns, Bisbee was saved in part by the deep affection many residents held for the place. It is a liberal, tolerant, and artistic town—local bumper stickers call it “Mayberry on Acid”—which helps to explain why locals were so receptive to Greene and his film crew. When the director got in touch, they had already started to plan a centennial commemoration of the deportation. They used oral history, museum exhibits, public art projects, and independent research to challenge the mining company’s argument that the deportation was necessary to protect the town from anti-American radicals—an official line that had eventually passed into a general silence. But it was Greene who prompted them to pursue historical reenactment, as Mike Anderson, a Bisbee resident featured in the film, told me.
Anderson, a local historian with a longtime interest in the deportation, was initially slated to play the main part in the reenactment, but Greene decided instead to focus on Fernando Serrano, a young Latino man who works at a Vietnamese noodle shop in Bisbee, and whose mother was deported to Mexico when he was a young child. Anderson, who called Greene “some kind of creative genius,” praised the decision for bringing a magnetic presence to the heart of the film. But he also attested to Greene’s flexibility and cooperation with the ideas of Bisbee residents. “His concept of what his movie was going to be changed and grew and became much different than it originally was,” Anderson said.
A film about a town like Bisbee risks exploiting its subject. There were moments during the movie where I was self-conscious of consuming marginal Americana in a metropolitan theater. But the profoundly collaborative nature of the movie prevents it from feeling like repurposed outsider art. The people of Bisbee speak, and they have serious things to say. Greene’s directorial presence can be felt throughout, but at the heart of the project is a public reckoning not fully in his control.
Reenactment has a history that goes well beyond its role in documentary film. In the United States, Civil War buffs regularly gather in large numbers to play-act old battles, some of them, as Tony Horowitz described in Confederates in the Attic, paying excruciating attention to the smallest bits of period-accurate minutiae. This participant-theater elevates the martial valor of Union and Confederacy alike, while ignoring the reasons for the war. (Comedian Eric Andre made this point brilliantly in a 2012 gonzo sketch where he ran through a reenactment as an escaped slave.) Civics-mongers love to complain that one of our country’s greatest problems is how little history we know; neo-Confederates show that the weaponization of the past can be a far greater danger than ignorance of it. Anti-racist organizers have challenged the power of Lost Cause ideology in recent years, often by literally bringing down Confederate monuments.
The reenactments in Bisbee ’17 also expose how historical myths help prop up the powerful. Greene underscores this point by shooting a scene in Cochise County’s most popular tourist destination, Tombstone, where millions have witnessed the violent kitsch of a blow-by-blow recreation of the famous 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral, immortalized in dozens of novels, TV shows, and movies. Greene suggests that tales of the Wild West have a similar hold on the American imagination as those of the antebellum South. The archetypal cowboy hero fends off both lawless evil and the encroachment of large institutions that threaten to close the frontier world of personal justice. Greene shows how easily this rugged individualism can become a handmaiden of corporate rule.
In one of six short films Greene released in anticipation of Bisbee ’17, Robert Houston, author of a 1979 novel of the same name, describes Harry Wheeler, the sheriff who presided over the deportation, as a man obsessed with a Wild West receding into the past. Wheeler, a former Arizona Ranger, enacted a common Western trope: he mustered a posse to chase some bad guys out of town. But Wheeler “was too late for the Old West,” says Houston. His “bad guys” weren’t bandits but the IWW, and the Eastern European and Mexican immigrants who responded to their call. And the peace he meant to keep was in service of supplying copper to the newly mobilized U.S. war machine. But the Wild West Wheeler tried to recapture was itself a fantasy, an ideology of virile self-reliance projected on the westward expansion of American empire and the genocide of the continent’s indigenous people.
In its efforts to confront historical trauma through reenactment, Bisbee ’17 has been compared to Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer spent over half a decade with perpetrators of the anti-communist mass murder of at least half a million Indonesians. His principal subject, Anwar Congo, personally murdered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in 1965 and 1966. Oppenheimer convinced Congo, a self-proclaimed “gangster,” and some of his fellow génocidaires to reenact various episodes related to their state-sanctioned violence. These scenes reveal the men’s affinity for Hollywood crime films, which directly inspired them to garrote many of their victims.
While The Act of Killing was widely praised, some questioned Oppenheimer’s apparently close relationship with the perpetrators of an atrocity. One critic accused him of being duped by Congo, who after insisting on the rightness of his actions is given the floor to express remorse. But Oppenheimer rejects Congo’s claim that he understands what his victim’s went through. The movie ends with Congo retching on a rooftop where he once murdered hundreds of people. “It’s as though he’s trying to vomit up the ghosts that haunt him,” Oppenheimer wrote in a Reddit AMA, “but nothing comes up, because he is the ghost. He is his past. . . . Some sins leave too stubborn a stain.”
While Bisbee mining executives were censured by the U.S. Department of Justice, they never faced serious consequences, let alone a real public accounting for their crimes. Most of the perpetrators of anti-union violence in the United States never have. Indeed, by the end of the First World War, intimidating and deporting radicals like the Wobblies and “dangerous” immigrant workers would become official state policy.
The participants in Bisbee ’17 call loudly for a confrontation with their town’s dark past, and how it has fed into the country’s dark present. Even Serrano, who at first questions the urgency many feel about the centennial commemoration, seems to experience a radicalization as he contemplates both the experience of Mexican miners and the personal trauma of the deportation of his own mother. Early on he struggles to pronounce the word “solidarity,” a concept with little familiarity to many raised after the capitalist counterrevolution of the 1970s. By the end of the movie, he pointedly reminds a former private prison guard who once deported prisoners to Central America that “white people” were the first immigrants to impede on the existing (indigenous) culture of the area around Bisbee. Of the deportation, he concludes, “They got what they need from the immigrants. They built what they needed to build, and they said we don’t need you anymore. Let’s run them out of town.”
The recreation is a bracing experience for the participants. Even the descendants of vigilantes seem remorseful and conflicted, and Greene seems to sympathize with their struggles. The one exception, Dick Graeme, a former mine worker who went on to preside over mining operations ranging from South America to West Africa, supports the deportation in unqualified terms. Greene casts him as a mining company president; in his sole scene, ghostly miners sing a Wobbly ballad to him while he lies awake in bed.
Ghosts, it seems, are everywhere in Bisbee; they haunt schools and an old hotel, and many describe an otherworldly “energy” that pervades the town. At the end of the reenactment, one of the men playing a vigilante compares the experience to “group therapy.” Based on the disturbed looks on other people’s faces, not all agree with this assessment. Indeed, Bisbee ’17 refuses to exorcise its specters. It ends with Serrano walking quietly in costume through the baseball field where the deportation was staged as high-school athletes practice, a dark figure under the night lights.
Nick Serpe is a senior editor at Dissent.