One hundred and one years ago, 2,000 townspeople in Bisbee, Arizona, helped the sheriff round up 1,200 miners who were on strike and stranded them in the middle of the New Mexico desert. In 2017, documentarian Robert Greene partnered with the people of Bisbee to re-create this event on a massive scale, complete with hundreds of extras. His latest film, Bisbee ’17, examines how people remember tragic events in their collective history what it means to confront the past so head-on.
Over the next week, the film will have screenings with Q&As in Scottsdale, Tucson, Sierra Vista, Prescott, Flagstaff, and Bisbee. Phoenix New Times spoke with the director ahead of the first screening.
What do you think was important about telling this story?
I think it’s important, first of all, to shed light on this event. Second of all, it’s important that in our film, the ’17 in Bisbee ’17 is 2017, meaning when you’re seeing these re-creations happening, you’re seeing locals that you come to know throughout the course of the film work through the issues that this event brings up. That means labor issues, immigration issues … Some people have described the Bisbee deportations as an ethnic cleansing and that happened in the U.S. Some people are shocked to know that that could happen in our country, but if you look at the history of our country, it’s happened again and again in different forms. It’s important to conjure these ghosts and think about them and see the images that we created together.
What would you say to someone who says it’s better to leave these things in the past rather than re-create them?
To me, that’s one of the central questions of the film. Do you bury the ghosts forever, so they can’t affect you or do you sort of conjure the ghosts so that you can think of them in a new way? We even have people in the film debating that, debating whether or not dressing up and re-creating it is a trivializing thing. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t …for me, that’s a question I want to leave the viewer to decide. For us, it seemed clear that it was the right thing to do. But we definitely want you to be questioning if it was the right thing to do because people should be questioning whether any kind of film is the right thing to do. I hope you bring that question with you when you watch the film because I think it will add an element that we want you to have in there, an element of thinking.
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What can viewers learn or experience from watching this film?
First and foremost, I love Bisbee as a place and I want the world to see Bisbee coming together to recognize together this heinous moment in its history, in our collective history in this country. The best part about the film is you hear from both sides ... We’re not talking about balance here; we’re actually talking about debating and trying to understand something on a deeper level. So, it’s not a fair and balanced kind of bullshit' it is much more about people in town have to reconcile this and people in our country have to reconcile this. The fact that you as a viewer can see them thinking through it and people from all sides of the equation participating in our re-creation, that’s pretty moving. In the end, it’s all about coming together to try and understand something.
How do you think this film is important in our current political climate?
I think it’s so obviously relevant that we didn’t even have to say that it’s relevant in the film. You never hear the word Trump, you never hear anything about current things in a direct way, but you can see it on everyone’s faces as they’re doing this re-creation, you can tell. For us, when we first started, it was before the election and it was a labor story about an esoteric thing in some ways. Even though there was a lot of passion for telling the story, it took on a whole new life after the election and into the new year and into 2017. By the time we were at July 2017, it was apparent for every single person that was a part of this, no matter their political beliefs, that this was a story that we needed to create these images [for] so that people could understand that political divisions like this have been a part of our history forever. And it’s important to know why we remain a left/right country, why we remain divided by the colors red or blue, or whatever these divisions are that seem so arbitrary. I think everyone knew what they were doing, so the viewer will understand that as well.
How does this film compare to some of your other documentaries?
We’ve been working through the idea of performance in documentary for a really long time. I’ve made films about performers in various ways … I’m interested in seeing people dress up and play roles. I think that somehow that can sometimes be the most truthful thing we can do. Sometimes, normal observational documentaries try to get at the truth in a direct way. I like to try and see the contradictions, and nothing speaks to contradictions like putting an actor in a documentary; it immediately makes people think there’s something else going on. To me Bisbee is the next sort of extension, in a much bigger way.
Bisbee '17 Q&A. 6:30 p.m. Friday, September 14, and Saturday, September 15, at Harkins Theatres Camelview 5, 7014 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale; bisbee17.com. Tickets are $15.50 via harkins.com.
The film will be screened without a Q&A from Friday, September 14, to Thursday, September 20. For all showtimes, visit harkins.com.