BAMcinemaFest 2018: ‘Bisbee ’17’ Exposes Hidden History

Seven miles from the US-Mexico border lies a town whose shakey legacy has been consciously erased from history.

Bisbee, Arizona was once a booming mining town, an important asset amidst WWI. During this era, Bisbee’s copper became of mass importance for fueling the war. After work conditions became unbearable, thousands joined a strike union known as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Whispered rumors of rebellion amongst the group and possible conspiring with the German and Mexican rebellions reached the mining corporations. It was then these large corporations, including Phelps Dodge, and Bisbee police led a paranoia and fear-driven force team to take care of these radicals, many of whom were immigrants.

On July 12th, 1917, strapped with white bands around their arms, the enlisted force tore into nearly two thousand strikers home’s and kidnapped them at gunpoint. They were rounded up at the town’s baseball field, before thrown onto cattle cars and deported to desolate New Mexico desert and left to die.

This event was largely forgotten, with many living in Bisbee unaware of that this event ever occurred. Previous to this film, it was not taught in schools and never discussed among the few that knew the real history.

It was when a relative bought a converted mining shack in the small town that filmmaker Robert Greene was introduced to this clandestinely historic town. After reading “Robert Huston’s “Bisbee 17”, a fictionalized version of the deportation, Greene sought out the story he felt hiding in the border town.

Greene intersects two different genres of filmmaking, stitching together documentary observations and theatrical performances to portray the lost history of the Bisbee Deportation. His fascinating storytelling brings history to life, as townspeople gather to reenact the deportation on the event’s 100th anniversary. Throughout the planning and execution of the reenactment, Greene helps the people of Bisbee reconcile with a dark past. By becoming and interacting with physical manifestations of history, it translates into a “process of people thinking through how they’re representing their own story”, as Greene describes it.

You see it in their faces, the “ah ha” moment, a sudden clarity of the severity of the past. Stone faces and stunned reactions sit upon those behind the cattle car bars. For a moment, a look is shared between the detainees and the white banded men. The townspeople literally confront their own history and come to grips with the violent realities that have been buried and shushed into nonexistence.

The parallels that this film draws to our current political minefield is not lost on Greene. His team first took to Bisbee in the fall of 2016, previous to the presidential election. He returned in January to a shift in the community’s atmosphere. “It was totally different in vibe, and we came back in January and then immediately everyone understood the meaning of what we wanted to do, so it’s a long-gestating thing that just felt immediately scary and relevant once things had changed”, Greene explains.

Bisbee ’17 challenges history, pulling it from its roots and exposing the truth. While the film was not a comment on today’s politics, it suggests a way of looking at the world and humanity’s mistakes. “Bisbee, in many ways, is a microcosm of the country and understanding the depth of what happened there is a way to grasp where we are today and what potential calamities await us if we don’t heed the lessons of history”, says Greene.  Bisbee ’17  goes beyond pointing a finger and stating, “That’s bad”. It presents an idea, a different tactic to fully understand the reverberations of a story such as this, pushing society a little closer to coming to terms with who we really are. It is through projects like this, ones that unforgivingly air out this country’s dirty laundry, that we are able to come to terms with our past and incite clarity for the future.

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