Dir: Robert Greene | Doc | US | 122′
Robert Greene’s documentary sees him working alongside the residents of the former copper-mining town of Bisbee, just 7 miles north of Mexico, as they prepare to put on the “largest group therapy session” in response to an infamous local event that changed this town forever, a hundred years ago. Since then the “town that refused to die” makes a tourist attraction of its disused mines. Bisbee is now home to an assortment of creatives and left-leaning non-conformists, a far cry from its origins during the copper boom.
Accompanied from the opening scene by an ominous score of strings, the film recalls the major event in question which took place on July 12, 1917 when miners on strike against their bosses, the copper companies, were aroused from their beds and taken to the central post office, thence expelled in cattle cars via the desert to New Mexico. Those responsible were fellow citizens who had taken it upon themselves to end the menace they felt the striking workers had become to the town. Bisbee 17 commemorates this tragic historical event now known as the ‘Bisbee Deportation’.
Greene’s outing clearly has a contemporary resonance, although it actually raises more questions than it answers. And while not attempting to provide a definitive history of the episode in question, it never really examines what then happened to the deportees, or how their plight was dealt with by the county’s legal framework. It is more concerned with personal recollections of how the conflict divided families, friends – the entire local community – as Bisbeans take it in turns to reminisce over who was a loyalist/capitalist and who a protester or socialist.
Interestingly enough, the majority of those striking for higher pay and improved conditions were originally from Mexico and Eastern Europe (all but one of the loyalists was Anglo-Saxon) so it turns out – surprisingly – that there was a quasi-ethnic cleansing element to the conflict. And whether this was a latent cause for the uprising is never examined in depth, as this is by no means an ethnographical study. Fernando Serrano, a young Mexican-American man who had never heard of the deportation before Greene rocked up with his crew, suddenly becomes a central protagonist in the proceedings, playing a Mexican miner. Comparisons soon emerge between his family’s past and the 1917 events, and this gives the documentary emotional texture and offers much food for thought. As the professional film crew collaborates with the locals the endeavour starts to take on a life of its own. The results are both haunting and moving. MT
SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 10-21 OCTOBER