Hot Docs 2018: Bisbee '17
The recent trend of documentaries that seek to reconstruct violent and traumatic events through individuals connected to the past is widespread, with Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing being the most prominent of the past decade. Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 undertakes a similar approach for a piece of early 20th century American history consigned to oblivion, that serves as a lesson for the contemporary era.
Bisbee ’17 concerns a small mining town of the same name in Arizona, which experienced a labor strike in 1917 that resulted in dividing its townspeople and a private police force rounding up strikers and deporting them to Mexico. Across six chapters, Greene delves deep into various modern day residents of Bisbee, their ancestors, and how the town has evolved in the past century up to the point of re-enacting the event which altered the fabric of their society.
Greene previously brought us Kate Plays Christine, itself a re-enactment focused documentary situated around an actor’s relationship to portraying a historical figure, builds upon the same themes of that film into a much more complex and layered scenario, as the film tracks a wide and colorful cast of Bisbee residents confronting the deportation, who either support, or flat out reject the motivation and positions of the characters they have been cast as. Greene is additionally credited as writer and editor of the project, and given the multitude of angles and perspectives featured within, one wonders what wasn’t able to make the final cut.
The re-enactment itself is bold, striking, and intense, even when we’ve spent nearly 2 hours with these people and learning much about their personalities. The power comes not just how Greene builds momentum from the very start, but the inescapable modern parallels that come from America’s recent deportation crisis in the era of Trump. Watching innocent people, some dressed in period garb and some not, dragged from their homes and places of business conjures up a haunting set of images, but more importantly, enables some quantum of justice and appeasement for the initial event to occur.
Greatly aided by cinematography from Jarred Alterman, who previously lensed the Ross Brothers’ striking Contemporary Color, and a partly somber, partly bombastic score from Keegan DeWitt (a frequent collaborator of Alex Ross Perry and Brett Haley). Bisbee ’17 brings to life a moment in American history that should never be forgotten, and is certainly one of the finest documentaries of the year.