Sundance film ‘Bisbee ‘17’ captures a century of raw emotions
“We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.” ~ Woody Guthrie
Documentary filmmaker Robert Greene caught wind of what he envisioned to be a relevant story for our times while visiting his mother-in-law in Bisbee, Arizona, a few years back.
It seemed that the present-day citizenry of the once-bustling copper mining town planned to reenact the 1917 mass deportation of 1,200 mostly Mexican immigrant workers on the 100th anniversary of the incident as a cultural and historical remembrance.
Greene, who immediately recognized a possible cinematic opportunity, began to research the story both by delving into historical documents and by conversations with locals. He soon learned that the ensuing 100 years had done little to moderate the passions involved on both sides of the issue.
Families had been ripped apart — one brother had even arrested and deported another — as pro- and anti-union fervor, both above and below ground, swept the town. World War I was afoot and, whether or not it sent young men to early graves, unduly enriched mine owners and entrapped miners into unsafe working conditions — the “good guys” needed copper.
In what he viewed as a benign intrusion, Greene inserted himself into the process, somewhat reshaped the reenactment, which was already set to go down utilizing Bisbee locals as actors and extras, and, with multiple cameras, captured the current generation exposing still-raw nerves as they journeyed into their collective past. The final result was the film “Bisbee ‘17,” which premiered in the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary competition.
On-camera interviews with role players involved on both sides of what many consider an “atrocity” and others “patriotic justice” elicited real-time pain and anger.
Complexities within the narrative abound as corporations take on unions, capitalism battles socialism, and white “natives” fight brown “newcomers” for the “moral high ground.” Sound familiar?
Fear within the community ran rampant as events began to unfold. The Bolsheviks in Russia had the Czarists on the run, and the mine owners took full advantage, aligning the ready-to-strike unions as unpatriotic provocateurs. “‘Our boys’ need our copper” became a battle cry. Sound familiar?
It’s easy for the filmgoer to see and feel the intense emotional fervor as “deputized” role players round up those on the mine-owner-generated lists and march them through town to the waiting railroad livestock cars, which will transport them deep into a quite inhospitable quadrant of the New Mexican desert. Those who return to Bisbee will be shot on sight.
If you couldn’t already sense the uncertainty inherent to documentary filmmaking through viewing the film, the question-and-answer session with Greene that followed a screening at the Sundance Film Festival certainly provided an ample glimpse. In this case, the camera has a way of forcing connections between the Bisbee of 1917 and the issues resounding today.
If that relationship isn’t made by the cinematic art involved, why film it at all? Where is the distinction? Where is the value? Why would it matter? If we don’t remember our history, as the old saw goes, we are doomed to repeat it.
It became readily obvious to those in the Prospector Theater last Thursday that those involved in the actual filmmaking emerged from the process utterly changed. And, hopefully, the same could be said for those who take the time to see this important film, whether or not they are aware of the context. And therein reposes both the rub and the art.
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