BISBEE ’17 is a nonfiction feature film by award winning filmmaker Robert Greene set in Bisbee, Arizona, an eccentric old mining town just miles away from both Tombstone and the Mexican border.
Radically combining collaborative documentary, western and musical elements, the film follows several members of the close knit community as they attempt to reckon with their town’s darkest hour. In 1917, nearly two-thousand immigrant miners, on strike for better wages and safer working conditions, were violently rounded up by their armed neighbors, herded onto cattle cars, shipped to the middle of the New Mexican desert and left there to die. This long-buried and largely forgotten event came to be known as the Bisbee Deportation. The film documents locals as they play characters and stage dramatic scenes from the controversial story, culminating in a large scale recreation of the deportation itself on the exact day of its 100th anniversary.
We spoke with Greene at the 28th Annual IFP Gotham Awards. His film was nominated for best documentary.
The Knockturnal: Tell us about your film.
Robert Greene: We went to this mining town on the border of Arizona and Mexico and we restaged a deportation that happened a hundred years ago. So with all the locals, sort of made a western, musical, ghost story, crazy performance piece in the middle of town with the locals.
The Knockturnal: And how did you discover the story?
Robert Greene: Bisbee’s an amazing place. It’s truly like a surreal place in America, and I’ve been going there for about 15 years and trying to figure out how to make this story for a really long time. So, we finally figured out this method to do it and we made it for the 100th anniversary of the event.
The Knockturnal: Tell me about your choice to do the re-enactment and how that fit into the doc?
Robert Greene: Well, it’s fused together. So what you see in the film is you see people trying to actually work through their own stories. So we have a story of a woman whose grandfather deported his own brother, and her two sons re-enact that. So it’s not just about playing dress-up. It’s about family legacies and family stories and it was sort of the only way we could tell the story, really because this is how people can work through and tell their own stories.
The Knockturnal: What’s your connection to Bisbee?
Robert Greene: My mother-in-law bought a place there 15 years ago and I started going there. It was the kind of thing where I fell in love with the place and then was appalled by what happened there at the same time. We just went back and it just deepened my affection for it …. it’s a place full of ghosts and that’s a very palpable, very real feeling, and so I love it and also I’m scared of it a little bit.
The Knockturnal: And the people there don’t want to talk about it?
Robert Greene: Well, they haven’t for a long time. I think that the 100th anniversary has allowed people to start to talk about it, which is unique. We got to come in and sort of amplify what was already happening, which was really exciting for us to be a part of that.
The Knockturnal: How do they feel about the documentary?
Robert Greene: I’m waiting for someone to stop me on the street and say they haven’t loved it. I think we gave people the chance and they took the chance and … it’s very collaborative, so we gave them the chance but they were also giving us the chance to tell the story and I think they were ready for it, so everyone loves it. We’ve shown the film to many, many, many sold-out screenings in Bisbee, which is kind of crazy. We premiered in New York and went right to Arizona and then played again in Bisbee. So far, everyone loved it. I’m waiting for that one person … ’cause Bisbee’s a town where you can’t park wrong without getting a mean note on your car, but so far, everybody likes the movie. I’m waiting for someone not to like the movie, but so far, so good.
The Knockturnal: Owning up to what happened is one way of coming to grips with it.
Robert Greene: Yeah, I think like I’ve said, I think people were ready. I mean … it’s 100 years ago, so no one who is alive today was directly involved, so it’s really about the identity of your family and the identity of who you are. The mines closed there in 1975, so the families who stayed behind after the mines closed — after it became not the mining town that it once was, were the ones who were most connected to the old companies, so there’s a lot of shame in that and I think they were ready to work through it, and we were happy to be a part of that.
The Knockturnal: The film seems to mirror what’s going on today.
Robert Greene: I mean, when we started, we thought we were making an esoteric labor story, which is just as important as any kind of story, a labor story, right? Especially in a right-to-work state like Arizona, and then … we started filming before that a-hole was elected president and then it’s just gotten worse and worse and worse. The images that you literally saw on the news yesterday could be from 100 years ago, 50 years ago, today. When you make a film that resonates in the way that this does, it’s not a happy feeling. It’s a terrible feeling. I wish we would’ve made a film that didn’t resonate. I wish we would’ve made a film that was a weirdo film that’s just about some weird mining incident, but in fact, the images that we’ve created together with the townspeople are alive and well in the worst possible way.
The Premier Sponsor of the 2018 IFP Gotham Awards was The New York Times, and the Platinum Sponsor was GreenSlate. The Official Water Partner was FIJI Water, the Official Chocolate Partner was Lindt Chocolate and the Official Wine Partner was Robert Hall Winery.