LFF 2018: Bisbee ’17

A 100 year old horror story comes back to haunt the residents of a small Arizona town

Robert Greene is one of a handful of documentary filmmakers prepared to regularly challenge the standard form, often with refreshing results. He does so once again in his new film Bisbee ‘17 which has definite shades of The Act of Killing and the more recently released Spettacolo. It’s an approach that sees the residents of Bisbee re-enacting an horrific event that took place in 1917 but has rarely been spoken about since.

The town is situated only seven miles from the Mexican border and the darkest chapter in the history of this Arizona town plays heavily into recent controversies surrounding immigration and the persecution of foreign migrants. Greene vividly evokes a torrid history and brings it into the present day until they merge as one, recalling an event known as the Bisbee Deportation, although the more we learn, the more it resembles an ethnic cleansing.

America’s entry into World War I In 1917 saw the copper mines in Bisbee become one of the main sources of materials used for artillery and weapons. Over 30 different nationalities lived and worked within the town but as you can imagine, work conditions weren’t exactly of the highest standard.  This led to a revolt and a demand for better treatment from many of the migrants working the mines, which culminated in almost 2,000 non-natives being rounded up, sent out of town and left to fend for themselves in the desert.

Greene sets the stage early by introducing us to a number of the current residents who act out brief scenes before turning to camera to announce themselves. He divides the Bisbee Deportation story into six chapters which are opened using classic Western-style fonts. It speaks of a time when many still saw Arizona as the Wild West, even taking a brief journey across to the nearby town of Tombstone, home to the infamous O.K. Corral.

Much of the film is seen through the eyes of Fernando, a young gay Mexican-American, who through his participation, is asked to reckon with his own heritage. He plays a young miner swept up in the strikes, while elsewhere two siblings play their ancestors – one who was a miner and the other his brother who rounded him up and sent him out of town. Although Bisbee now has a population of around 5,000 people, the once thriving mining shafts that made it the richest town in Arizona have long since closed and turned it into one of the state’s poorest.

Greene opens the film with a quote from Colin Dickey’s book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, the author stating how ghost towns like Bisbee feel like two cities placed on top of each other – the old still haunting the new. The resistance and self-denial that led to the mass killing still echoes into today with some residents offering weak justification for the horrors of the past. Much of that is voiced by the ex-President of the local mining business, a company man who says it was a patriotic act to prevent bloodshed on the streets and to stop the spread of socialism. It wouldn’t sound so chilling if similar words weren’t being spoken by so many others today.

The townsfolk see the re-enactment right through to being marched down to the local baseball stadium before being herded onto custom-made freight train carriages. What we don’t get from Greene’s film is an understanding of how it might have changed anyone involved, and if this will allow room for a moment in history that has remained silenced for 100 years to exist. There are a lot of questions thrown into the air and Greene seems to trust us and the Bisbee residents to find our own answers.

One of the actors involved calls it “The largest group-therapy session,” and Bisbee ’17 sees Greene perform something akin to a mass conjuring by calling on old spirits and leaving it down to the locals to expel them once the cameras have departed. The lines it draws with events today are clear enough and despite being left unspoken, their presence can be felt almost everywhere you look, which is testament to Greene’s skill as a documentary filmmaker.


Tickets for Bisbee ’17 are still available to watch at LFF and you can buy tickets on the BFI website.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Oct 05, 2018

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