The Director of 'Bisbee '17' on Making the Year's Most Daring, Revelatory Documentary

bisbee 17 documentary
4th Row Films
4th Row Films

How you react to Robert Greene's new film, Bisbee '17, probably depends on how you handle ghosts. Do you accept them or exorcise them? Do you believe they exist and have an impact on current life, or are they stories of the dead that belong in the past? Bisbee '17 isn't a ghost story, per se, but rather a story about ghosts: Ghosts of the past, of history -- grim evidence of American sins. It's a sobering affirmation that we've only advanced so much as a country in the passing of a century.

That affirmation is so key to the movie's function that it's written right into the title via an essential apostrophe. Bisbee '17 refers to both 2017, the year the citizens of Bisbee, Arizona chose to reenact the events of the Bisbee Deportation, and 1917, the year the deportation took place. Boiled down to basics, the deportation saw roughly 1,300 striking workers in Bisbee's flush copper mines snatched from their homes in the wee hours of July 12, 1917, unceremoniously loaded into cattle cars, driven out to the desert in New Mexico, and left to die. To this day no one knows for sure what happened to them.

That's a shameful 100-year history to be reconciled through a single performanceMaybe you believe in ghosts. Maybe you're an inveterate skeptic. Greene himself falls in the middle: "I don't believe in ghosts," he explains, "but I do believe in them in Bisbee." After watching his film, there's a good chance you'll feel the same as he does.

"There's two kinds of ghost in Bisbee," says Greene, explaining the energy from the old copper mines Bisbee is (literally and figuratively) built on, and an acute need for ghosts in a town absent an economy. "There's the economy of ghosts in some way," he adds. "So the collective belief that there have to be ghosts there, plus the need for ghosts to be there, I think generates its own sort of energy, too. You can feel something in the town, and it might just be a hunger for belief. I don't know. But it's there." The movie demonstrates that hunger with sequences shot in area hotels, where people claim to have encountered ghosts (members of Greene's crew included); they believe in ghosts because they want to believe. As voiceover in the trailer points out, a mining town with a dead mine is usually called a ghost town, but that's typically because the residents have fled to other economic opportunities. What happens when the town goes right on existing on top of dead history and a dead economy? 

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Bisbee remains haunted by the specter of 1917, though residents might not realize it at first -- if they ever realize it at all. Hence the choice of exorcism or acceptance: Some deny the deportation happened, others feel that it demands address. Maybe unsurprisingly, folks of the former opinion tend to belong to old mining families, and folks of the latter opinion tend to be transplants. "So, the old divisions in the town were the company foreman, the company executives, and the workers," Greene says of the Bisbee social hierarchy. "That's the old order. The new order is old mining families with this guilt...  and the new outsiders that moved to Bisbee because they want to live in someplace different." (There's no reason to live in Bisbee unless you love the place, as Greene tells it.)

That mixture of old and new is a recipe for tension. "Guilt and thinking about your relationship to the past is what everyone does every single day," Greene says. And when you mull over guilt, whether it's your guilt or the guilt you feel vibrating through the air around you, you're eventually going to need an outlet for it. Either that, or you're going to need to develop some powerful self-denial skills.

"There's always two choices, right?" Greene points out. "Don't talk about it, and hopefully it dies forever. Or do an exorcism." For Bisbee's 100th birthday, the town's centennial committee chose exorcism, performing a town-wide reenactment of the deportation in which Bisbee's residents played deporters and deportees. It's a project reminiscent of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, where participants in the Indonesian genocide of 1965 to 1966 recreated mass executions under the pretense that they were making a narrative feature film of their exploits. If Bisbee doesn't feel haunted enough, having locals dressed as miners, lawmen, and passerby simply getting through the day adds to the apparitional atmosphere. By the end of the movie, after we've invested ourselves in Bisbee, Greene's subjects, and the characters they play, watching the reenactment in action feels appropriately surreal.

"It's abstraction versus experience, I think," says Greene. "That was kind of one of the ideas of doing something like this. It's about history in a sense, but it's more about how we process history and how we work through it." As we get to know Bisbee '17's cast of Arizonans, we get to observe them as they grow closer to the characters they're chosen to play in the reenactment; they're doing the challenging, painful work of understanding not just the people they're portraying, but the biases and beliefs that shaped their actions during the deportation, whether they were perpetrators or victims. "It's a natural human connection," Greene adds, interpreting the process of preparing for the reenactment as a matter of empathy. "This is why historians have to work so hard to get us to understand beyond facts. I mean, great historians are always great novelists, you know?"

bisbee 17
4th Row Media

Take, for example, Richard Hodges, whom we meet at Bisbee '17's outset, introduced to the viewer as a longtime Bisbee resident, having attended high school there in 1969. Richard plays Harry Wheeler, sheriff of Cochise County, covering Arizona's southeastern pocket, where Bisbee stands as the county seat. Wheeler was instrumental in the deportation efforts, deputizing more than 2,000 men from Bisbee and surrounding towns to serve as his posse; the villains in this story are him and Walter Douglas, then president of the Phelps Dodge Corporation, to which many Bisbee residents owed their lives and livelihood. Hodges approaches Wheeler with thoughtfulness and nuance, likely because, as Greene puts it, "he's thought a lot about Harry Wheeler actually through his whole life."

Wheeler was a born lawman, a self-styled cowboy and, by consequence, a complicatedly tragic figure. He was also bought and paid for by Phelps Dodge. With that in mind, there's almost no way to think of Wheeler as anything but an antagonist, yet Hodges still tries to add humanity to his character. In his effort lies the tragedy. Confronting the past through art is one way to move forward from it, though, when considered in light of The Act of Killing, there are severe limits on human capacity to comprehend the horrors we inflict on each other -- even when given the tools of time, reflection, and empathy.

Still, Bisbee '17 demonstrates an alternative path; when the reenactment concludes, friends and neighbors embrace, shake hands, trade apologies, and even trade jokes, though the jokes feel like gallows humor. "You guys were pretty good," an older Mexican gentleman, cast as one of the miners, tells a younger white man, cast as part of the posse. "Too damn good!" It's a lighthearted quip, but it comes off as a sobering reminder of what's transpired. The deportation is a complicated chapter in American history. There may be no way to uncomplicate it. But in bringing contemporary Bisbee closer to the the Bisbee of a century ago, the newfound proximity makes the deportation less abstract, and maybe we can take a lesson from that as we struggle with American sins of yesteryear and today. (If you're connecting dots between the deportation and the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, you're not alone.)

Human willingness, ultimately, determines the effectiveness of reckoning with our ghosts, says Greene, and America isn't there. "Bisbee was ready," Greene says. "The guilt is real, but Bisbee was and remains ready to confront this. And that's the only way we could make our film, is that the town itself was... ready to go." The hope of Bisbee '17, despite its horrors, is that it may help the rest of us get ready to go, too.

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Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR's The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.