Amid the recent onslaught of documentaries that use reenactment to examine vital cultural and historical issues (think “The Act of Killing” and “Casting JonBenet”), consider “Bisbee ’17” to be the finest. The film, directed by Robert Greene (“Kate Plays Christine,” yet another in this docu-nactment genre), is a harrowing and majestic tour de force that dissects with a fine knife the simmering and lingering tensions in a small, nearly hollowed out Ariz. town.
A hundred years ago, Bisbee, Ariz. was home to the most productive copper mining operation in the state. In 1917, as America entered World War I and its military relied on copper more than ever before, a labor strike — aided by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — split the town in two. On one side was the miners, mostly immigrants from either Mexico or Eastern Europe who protested for better working conditions, better pay and shorter hours. On the other side was the pro-military jingoists, the racists and the anti-communists who detested immigrant presence and agitated for military might. Ultimately the Phelps Dodge Corporation used private police to round up roughly 1,200 striking miners, load them onto cattle cars and deport them to desolate New Mexico.
The Bisbee Deportation has not remained in the national popular consciousness, if it ever was there, but the issues it brought to the fore have yet to leave. “Bisbee ’17,” which creates a town-wide reenactment of the events of the Deportation, was first screened as President Trump and Republicans in Congress refused to compromise on letting DACA families stay in the United States as part of a Continuing Resolution. It was filmed as Trump rose to power with the help of corporate money that influenced our political process, and as kneeling for the national anthem became something of an artificial litmus test of one’s supposed patriotism. The film’s timeliness is eerie, but a cursory reading of American history shows that these debates have never vanished. The new administration is only an aggravator of tensions that have existed throughout this nation’s history, including and perhaps especially in Bisbee in 1917.
The reenactment includes a wide swath of the city: elder women, younger men, artists, ex-miners. Some the actors agree with their characters’ positions, some don’t. The debate doesn’t remain in the foreground, but the values do. Bisbee is a town riddled with ghosts, both of the 1917 deportation and of the rapidly disappearing town — the copper mines stopped running a number of years back and, as one interviewee notes, an industry town without the industry is a ghost town — and even a hundred years later, these ghosts remain. One woman wants her sons to reenact the experience of her grandfather and grand uncle — one arrested and deported the other in 1917 — to satisfy a longing for reconciliation.
The re-enactment itself is astounding, bolstered both by Jarred Alterman’s (“Contemporary Color”) propulsive cinematography and Keegan DeWitt’s (“Chasing the Blues”) harsh and haunting score. We can see the grand scale of Greene’s operation, his vision for recuperation, for healing a hundred year old wound. The entire sequence is an assault on the present and on our collective memory — a forceful diagnosis that these problems have yet to be resolved. A present-day Lebanese immigrant is drawn out of his store mid-interview.
But “Bisbee ’17” also finds solace in quieter moments. One actor, portraying a striking miner, Fernando Serrano, sings the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in Spanish into a mirror, face very near to the camera. Eerie yet inspiring, the performance, like the rest of the documentary, is a subliminal call to action.