“Bisbee ‘17” by director Robert Greene revives the story of the Bisbee Deportation, an ethnic cleansing of an Arizona mining town just seven miles off the United States and Mexico border in 1917. The deportation was justified with a document known as the “Law of Necessity,” which the town published after deporting about 1,300 of its citizens. Victims were supposedly targeted for being dangerous members of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W) labor union, but since 90% of victims were born outside the U.S. (particularly in Mexico or Eastern Europe) scholars have concluded it is not the standard union vs. company dispute.
The documentary follows the story of the town as they approach the centennial of the deportation, a historical event that has been purposefully buried in the town’s collective memory. Locals even admit the Bisbee Deportation has not been taught in schools or openly discussed over the past hundred years. Several citizens born and raised in Bisbee attest to never having heard about the deportation until the documentary crew arrived.
To tell the story, Greene used the same method of restaging history that he has employed in previous films like "Kate Plays Christine" and "Actress". Though recreating past events isn't a new idea in documentary filmmaking, it is especially effective in the film. It spurs a discussion around the Bisbee Deportation, a deeply divisive and generally avoided subject. "Bisbee '17" exemplified the ability of performance art to explore the previously untouchable subject matter.
“Bisbee ‘17” follows the town through the restaging of the event. It is metatheatrical since it is a film about the making of a performance. The film shows set construction, like the building of freight cars into which mock-deportees will be loaded. A fictional anthem for the opposition of the I.W.W is composed for the 2017 recreation. Citizens (now actors) are interviewed about their processes getting in character. In a few of the reenacted historical scenes, we see crew members fanning fog from machines to texture the image.
These aspects are just some of the ways the viewer is constantly made aware of the artificiality of the medium. The first interview begins outside Bisbee High School where a man stands waiting for the documentary crew’s cue to begin speaking. This interview format (prolonged shots of people waiting to begin their part) reminds audiences that even the ‘real’ parts of the documentary, the first-hand accounts of the deportation, are staged. These pauses are included before every citizens’ first interview. When the initial interviewee does talk, even though he is yards away from the camera, his voice echoes crisp and clear through the speakers, instantly telling us he is miked. Audiences are ever-aware of the camera’s presence as aesthetic lens flares are kept in the film. The camera’s presence adds a distance between the viewer and the content.
One could question the decision to tell such a real and relevant story today in this hyper-stylized manner. Throughout the film, viewers are introduced to Bisbee citizens with very personal attachments to the deportation. One family has been aligned with the mining company for generations, another family divided by the deportation (one brother deputized by the company, one deported by them), and one young man named Fernando whose mother was deported when he was a child. These individuals on both sides of the deportation were given the opportunity to live out their previously private family histories and personal experiences through characters in the performance. After doing so, one actor claimed, “This was like the largest group-therapy session.”
The theatricality of the performance creates distance between the citizens and their history in the same way that the cinematic elements provide distance between the viewers and the content. The film enables the citizens and viewers alike to view the deportation as something external to themselves. They do not feel accountable, so they have more room to analyze the experience and perhaps reach conclusions previously too threatening to their own egos to consider. One citizen-turned-actor admits after the reenactment that the Bisbee Deportation shouldn’t be happening in today’s world. The performative element allows everyone to really question what is right compared to what is legal, a question especially worthy of attention today.
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