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Doc Corner: Robert Greene's 'Bisbee '17'

by Glenn Dunks

Staged realities are at the heart of Robert Greene’s films. Whether it be the wrestlers of Fake It So Real, the performative comeback of Actress or the uncanny fiction of Kate Plays Christine, his films have always blurred lines between what is real and what is… less real. Maybe.

Bisbee ’17, opening tomorrow in NYC, marks multi-hyphenate Greene’s most accessible feature to date, perhaps not coincidentally because the divide between the two realities he builds are at their most clearly defined. But even if the structure allows an audience more familiar comfort, it’s still a haven for the sort of hazy distortion that Greene does so well and which can make viewers feel off-balance, unsure about whether what they’re watching is completely real or some version of it.

The setting for Bisbee ’17 is the town of Bisbee, Arizona. A town in the shadow of the copper mining boom in the early stretches of last century; once one of the most prosperous towns in America, it now stands as a remnant of a long-since gone American ideal. It's a minor tourist destination, and the keeper of a tragic secret past that is about to get to get torn open like a scab from a 100 year-old wound that never healed...

Bisbee holds a remarkably sad relevance to cotemporary American culture. In 1917, threatened by the rise of unionized mining workers and gripped by strike, some 2000 locals were deputized by the Sheriff and told to round up approximately 1300 striking miners and sympathizers who were then hoarded onto train boxcars and shipped out into the New Mexico desert with no food or water. Predominantly Mexican and Russian immigrants, they were essentially sent out to die, their penance for asking for better work conditions in an industry that was famous for poor standards.

The town, once a rich mining paradise has since felt the full force of corporate ambivalence. Now a ghost town, a shell of its former self, since the profit-fuelled agendas of the mining companies upped and left the town. Jarred Alterman’s strikingly composed and elegant cinematography captures a town of classic beauty that often belie the stark realities of actually living there. Contemporary life in the town is portrayed in fluid, artful takes, evoking a nostalgia of Route 66 come crashing into the modern age. Memories of Bisbee’s working-class golden age rub up against a growing local population of immigrants, queer people and bohemians – many of whom are completely oblivious to the full extent of the town’s history.

The incident of 100 years ago is largely ignored, although those who do speak of it do so in the sort of language of stubborn patriotism. Where have we heard “they were just doing what they were told” before?

A second large portion of Bisbee ’17 is devoted to Greene staging a recreation of this tragic event, using locals to play the rounders and the roundees (even in one case, descendants portraying their own family) into a small-town twist on those civil war recreations that film and television like to tell us are so popular. A devastatingly sad series of events, the frothing anger is evident suggesting a lifetime of stories never before spoken out loud. It can be tough to watch, but presumably even more tough to partake in – the horrific realization of what their forefathers and ancestors did, the lives stolen and families ripped apart.

I saw this film on the day that America’s separation of children from parents at the border broke into the public news feed and the echoes from reality to Greene’s recreation of his own subject’s reality were too bleak to deny. I was moved to tears, a rarity for me. It’s closing passages are so exceptionally well-handled that one might actually forget they’re watching a documentary recreation.

Greene does allow several individual stories to emerge out of the broader Bisbee canvas. They are integral to understanding modern day Bisbee, which in turn give the recreations an even more powerful effect. I was particularly moved by Fernando, a 23-year-old gay Mexican-American and first-generation immigrant who offers keen insight into what Bisbee has become. A town seemingly at odds with itself that perhaps needed to confront its sins in order to move beyond them. It’s a lesson for not just the town of Bisbee, of course. And if that requires discomfort, violence and tears? Well, maybe that’s just a necessary part of the unfolding story.

Release: Playing New York's Film Forum from Wednesday September 5th before moving to LA at the end of the month.

Oscar Chances: They haven't responded to Greene yet, unfortunately, but Bisbee '17 plays a bit more inside the lines of what constitutes a documentary than something like Kate Plays Christine. Can its relevance give it a leg up with a branch that might be looking to stretch its scope?

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Reader Comments (1)

Saw this at MIFF and I agree, it is a very powerful film. Towards the 2/3 mark, I started to ponder whether it needed a bit of editing in the middle section, as it started to feel like it was rehashing some of the main points, but the end re-creation is so striking, I forgave that misgiving.

September 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTravis C

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