Review: Bisbee ’17 Breaks the Bounds of Average Documentary Filmmaking

Documentaries abound about historical stories and figures we all know well; they’re typically straight-forward and straight-laced, with talking heads and archival footage recounting whatever incident or experience they document. The narrative arc of these films fit better on PBS or The History Channel than anywhere else, so predictable are their structures. More broadly, documentary filmmaking as a genre is difficult to reinvent, given that the very nature of these films is their basis in fact rather than fiction.

It follows, then, that when a film takes a moment in history previously unknown to most and turns it into a riveting, compelling film that breaks all bounds of what we think we know about documentaries, you’ve got a winner on your hands.

Bisbee '17
Image courtesy of Doc10

Such is the case with Robert Greene’s latest, Bisbee ’17. Greene’s work as a director (most of his credits are as editor) all seem to build toward his current work, as films like Kate Plays Christine play with our expectations of the documentary, breaking down invisible boundaries and  drawing us ever closer to the story unfolding before us. Through a variety of uncommon if not downright unique techniques, Greene recounts the true story of a miners’ strike in Bisbee, Arizona in the summer of 1917. The workers, subjected to low pay and poor working conditions, staged a walk-out as union leaders organized the laborers into a force to be reckoned with. But company owners were having none of it, and in one devastating day, the town authorities rounded up the strikers and literally shipped them out of town for their transgressions.

2016’s Christine, itself a twisting, turning journey into the experience of an actress preparing to play the newscaster who infamously committed suicide on an evening broadcast, employs similarly non-traditional methods as featured Bisbee ’17. Often, what we see is less polished documentary and more behind-the-scenes footage. These are the shots that other, less confident filmmakers might’ve shied away from including in the final cut. The camera lingers after the subject is done talking; the scene’s played out across the room, yet we feel like we’re right there in the action. Suffice it to say, there are no talking heads in Greene’s films.

We join the town as the deportation’s centennial approaches, the town simultaneously grappling with the past and navigating the present, where fears over immigration, assimilation and “job-taking aliens” are all too real. But the mass deportation of a century ago warrants more than a somber memorial service through which to reflect on the actions of the town’s ancestors. This was a complicated time, families divided over labor rights and “homeland security;” even generations later, stories persist of grandparents who faced deportation and the siblings who enforced it, legacies of a past many in town are determined not to forget.

And here’s where things get weird—that fascinating kind of weird where it’s impossible to look away, even as what plays out on screen gets more and more difficult to watch. The town begins reenactments of the strike and deportation, with residents cast as miners, lawmen and protesters, many of them portraying the roles of their ancestors who were part of the actual events so long ago. With Greene’s camera firmly trained on the present day, he’s also sharply focused on the lingering effects of a history many in town would sooner forget than relive, even as they do just that.

The story of Bisbee might yet warrant a more straight-forward documentary treatment; certainly, there are civics lessons to be had in all of this, and interviews with historians, immigration advocates and labor leaders would illuminate a tragic, practically unbelievable moment in the town’s past. Fortunately for us, such a vanilla treatment is not Greene’s style. By enlisting the town itself to re-tell one of its darkest moments—based, mind you, on informal and subjective sources—there’s an opportunity for everyone, resident and audience alike, to not only learn about the past, but chart change for the future, too.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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