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.