I’ve been going to Bisbee, Arizona since 2003, when my mother-in-law bought an old cabin in the eccentric former mining town near the border. I immediately fell in love with the place. My partner was born in Tucson and we have roots in the area, but nothing prepared me for this strange, magical, truly haunted enclave – and the secret history buried there. Since then, I’ve been dreaming of making a film that captures the unique and troubled spirit of Bisbee. The centennial of the Bisbee deportation – a tragedy where 1200 striking miners, many of them immigrants, were marched out of town at gunpoint and loaded unto cattle cars – gave us the opportunity. Maybe it was just a matter of time before I made the Bisbee film – my first ever feature film idea back when I initially came to town was to “re-stage the deportation with the locals.” So after five feature documentaries, many of which use performance to try to create new ways of seeing and understanding, it was finally time to make the movie I’d been dreaming of.
The Bisbee deportation is one of countless untold tales of radicalism and oppression in American history and I knew I wanted to tell the story when I first heard it in 2003. But we had relatively little idea when we started pre-production in the summer of 2016 just how relevant the story would become. As the calendar turned to the summer of 2017, with the centennial approaching, labor rights under unprecedented attack and a humanitarian crisis gathering on the U.S.-Mexico border, a sense of urgency began to set in for all of us. The desire for the community to tell this story was palpable and we filmmakers were providing the stage. They knew what we knew: the images that we were creating together would matter. Bisbee, in many ways, is a microcosm of the country and understanding the depth of what happened in the old company town is a way to grasp where we are today as nation, how deeply ingrained American mythologies are used to divide us, and what calamities await if we don’t heed the lessons of our history.
Our first mission, then, was to document the emotional awakening the town was experiencing as the centennial of the deportation approached. Then we began working with everyone from descendants of deportees to company families to create scenes that helped facilitate a kind of truth and reconciliation by way of layered performance. In my last several films, I’ve pushed further and further into the possibilities of collaborative, performative documentary filmmaking, where subjects and filmmakers work together to stage semiconstructed scenes that help the viewer imagine the internal lives of real people. With Bisbee '17, we’ve pushed this idea significantly forward. What we see is a working through of story and history and mythology as non-actors engage in “roles” that relate to their real lives and this collective trauma. The historical, the political, and the personal all become entwined as locals play dress up, portraying ghosts of a buried past. It all leads to a surprisingly cathartic and emotional place, where the collective performance of a town playing itself reveals both divisions and connections between people. Should we bury the past forever or should we work together to exorcise our demons? One white guy who played one of the vigilantes declares at the end of the large-scale recreation, “this is like the largest group therapy session ever.” A Mexican- American man who had played a deportee saw things a little differently. “You guys were good,” he said to a friend playing a deporter, “maybe too good.”
—Robert Greene, Director/Editor, Bisbee '17