'Bisbee'17': A tragic story of Arizona's ghost town resonant in America's mass deportations today
The event Graeme is alluding to is the infamous Bisbee Deportation, which occurred on July 12, 1917, where nearly 1,300 striking immigrant miners were illegally kidnapped and deported.
"How do you get two thousand people to keep a secret?" Dick Graeme, a miner for 58 years with the Copper Queen Company, says in Robert Greene's 'Bisbee'17,' referring to the grave crime against humanity committed by thousands of people in the small town of Bisbee, in Arizona.
The event, Graeme is alluding to, is the infamous Bisbee Deportation, which occurred on July 12, 1917, where nearly 1,300 striking immigrant miners were illegally kidnapped and deported by 2,000 townspeople who were deputized overnight by the sheriff. Bisbee, now a ghost town, was rich with copper during World War I as mining companies flocked to the town and made record profits. The miners — mostly Mexican and Eastern European immigrants — however, grew tired of the unsafe working conditions and discrimination and called for a strike.
The strike, initiated by the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), left the townspeople to choose between the striking miners and the mining companies. The residents ultimately chose the companies as they rounded up over a thousand miners — several of them their own kins — forced them into trains, transported them into the New Mexico desert and left them to die.
Now, a hundred years after the tragic incident, hardly anyone in the town talks about or mentions its shameful history. It is not taught in the schools, and people there do not want to refer to a time when the mining companies made all the rules. 'Bisbee'17' is a haunting re-enactment of the horrific incident — which many townspeople still believe to be just — and how the process of reproducing the event makes them uncomfortable in the present times as they take on the roles of striking miners and the deputies — the victims and the perpetrators.
"What the film really is about is the townspeople playing characters from the event to come to a better understanding of what happened," director Robert Greene tells Meaww. "The act of watching someone try to become something else and try to work through the process of understanding a role, a performance, that’s how you see them thinking through. So you’re watching people process history, you are watching people process the story of the town and in some cases the story of their own relatives."
As the residents begin to take on their roles in the reenactment, the film begins to blur the lines between lived experience and performance as the viewer struggles to discern between reality and its representation. There are some residents who defend the miners and the injustice dealt towards them, while there are others who are more conflicted in their perception of the incident; particularly the descendants of Edward Leslie Cook, who was among the 2,000 people to get deputized and found himself arresting and deporting his own brother Archie out of the town.
One performance which is particularly striking in the film is that of a young man named Fernando Serrano, who plays an immigrant miner. Serrano's own life experience comes in to play having seen his mother deported to Mexico at the age of 7. We see him deal with a mix of strong emotions as he gradually learns about the details of the Bisbee deportation when he reads out the lines of his character.
"When we called action we didn’t expect them to go at each other as vigorously as they did in the end. The scenes really took a life of their own, because I personally think that the town was ready to work through some of the stuff that was being brought up. So, the divisions that were being brought up was an extremely emotional thing. It was also the July of 2017, so the awareness of what’s going on along our borders, in America, in general, was on everyone’s minds," Greene says.
The film also provides a justification narrative from the company's point of view as we see residents like Dick Graeme, a former company president, talking about the deportation as something justifiable. He says it is important to consider the management perspective because the truth is that Bisbee is a company town. It was a company town, and it remains a company town as he explains that the town existed because of the mining companies. So when the IWF called the strike, the companies saw it as an existentialist threat which had to be resolved somehow. Graeme says the people did what they did fearing blood on the streets.
'Bisbee'17' appears ambiguous on where it stands as it presents both the sides and leaves the viewer with a mix of emotions. It, however, makes a strong point in the end when it doesn't reveal the ultimate fate of the deported miners, leaving viewers hanging.
When asked why doesn't the film reveal what happened to the deporter miners, Greene says: "I want you to ask that question at the end of the film. There is a ghost that hangs over the whole incident. There’s a lingering question, the feeling, the fear of loss of what happened to the men; I think it is important for everyone to question that in the end."
The viewer, throughout the film, is acutely aware of how the reenactment unfolding in front of them is horribly resonant of the current times they live in, particularly in President Donald Trump's America with rampant deportations of immigrants and separation of their families, mostly Mexicans, quite similar to ones in the documentary. It is then when the director says that many will presume the '17 in 'Bisbee'17' to be the year the deportation occurred – 1917 – but it is not. The date in the film's title is 2017, the year where the horrible reality of deporting hundreds of innocent immigrants still stands true after 100 years.