Review: In ‘Bisbee ’17,’ Anti-Union Violence Haunts an Arizona Town

Posted September 4, 2018 5:10 p.m. EDT

Bisbee, Arizona, not far from the Mexican border, is a quiet former mining town, one of many such places scattered across the American West. Tombstone, site of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and a popular tourist destination, is just up the road. Bisbee has a notably violent episode in its past as well, an event that is the subject of “Bisbee ’17,” Robert Greene’s clearsighted and gratifyingly complicated new documentary.

Starting on July 12, 1917 — a few months after the United States entered World War I and in the midst of labor agitation across the mining industry — sheriff’s deputies rounded up around 1,200 people thought to be union activists, forced them into boxcars and transported them to the New Mexico desert. What came to be known as the Bisbee Deportation lingered at the margins of local memory, not forgotten but not much discussed either. As the centennial approached, a group of history-minded citizens organized a re-enactment, and Greene focuses on the preparations for that curious pageant.

The nature of performance — the ways reality can be counterfeited and uncovered when people take on different identities — has preoccupied this filmmaker for a while. “Actress” (2014) and “Kate Plays Christine” (2016) both examine individual performers as they slip between selves, taking a sometimes voyeuristic interest in the psychological implications of acting. “Bisbee ‘17” is more concerned with the ethical, political and social meanings of artifice, and in how past conflicts resonate in the present.

Bisbee was pretty much a company town until the mines closed in the mid-’70s, and some of the re-enactors proudly stick to the company line. While some Bisbeeans see the sheriff as a villain — or as a tool of the copper bosses — others insist that he was responding, perhaps heavy-handedly, to a terrorist threat. Order needed to be maintained, and the militants of the Industrial Workers of the World (better known as Wobblies) were anarchists fomenting sabotage and sedition under the guise of workers’ rights.

The arguments that split the town in 1917 divide it still, but within the bounds of civility. The people playing deputies and those playing their victims aren’t really enemies, and their collaboration can be taken as evidence of healing. Recreating a civic tragedy requires a common sense of purpose. But the attitudes that led to the deportation have hardly disappeared. Labor and capital have yet to end their struggle, and the abuse of police power is far from a dead issue. Many of the Bisbee deportees had Spanish or Slavic surnames, and their removal has an element of ethnic cleansing. “Deportation” is as loaded a word now as it was a century ago.

Current politics hover over the movie, even though the people in it are reluctant to talk about their beliefs and affiliations. Instead, Greene’s sympathetic method — you can feel him quietly listening and observing, leaving plenty of silence for his subjects to fill — allows the viewer to discover unstated ironies and resonances. And also, most of all, to appreciate the humanity of both the re-enactors and the long-gone figures they are impersonating.

Especially moving is the testimony of Fernando Serrano, a young man who grew up in Mexico and the U.S. and knew little about the deportation until he signed up for the re-enactment. His political awakening seems to happen before our eyes, as he connects his own life to past events. For others, the connection is more direct. Mel and Steve Ray are brothers who portray their own grandfather and great-uncle, one of whom was arrested by the other.

Dressing up in old-fashioned costumes and parading through town looks like fun, and it’s fun to see the modern residents of Bisbee get into character and commit to the spirit of the spectacle. And even though “Bisbee ‘17” depicts a wholesome and harmonious community undertaking, it is a profoundly haunted and haunting film. What we are witnessing is not the commemoration of a past disaster but its reanimation. Every important thing this movie is about is still alive.

“Bisbee ‘17”

Rated PG. Discussions and re-enactments of violence. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.