One of the tourist attractions in Bisbee, Arizona, is the old Philips Dodge copper mine. Visitors can actually ride on the mine cars that generations ago took workers into the earth. “Hang on,” the tour guide tells visitors as they enter, “We’re going down deep.”
It’s a perfect metaphor for the historical mining town in “Bisbee ’17.” The fascinating documentary mixes fact and fiction to get at deeper truths about the cultural bedrock that the town, and much of America, is built on.
“Bisbee ‘17” screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. Katherine Benton-Cohen, associate professor at Georgetown University and a 2002 UW-Madison graduate, will be at the screening to talk about it afterward. She was an adviser on the film. Admission is free for members, $7 for all others.
Haunting Bisbee like a ghost is a 1917 event called the Bisbee Deportation. Miners, most of them unionized as part of the socialist Industrial Workers of the World, most of them immigrants, went on strike against the company. The company, which essentially ran the town, responded by having the strikers rounded up by local police and sympathetic residents. They loaded some 1,200 strikers into cattle cars and literally ran them out of town on a rail. Most never came back to Bisbee.
Bisbee didn’t hide the deportation — the mining company even hired a professional photographer to take pictures of the event, which hung in the local history museum — but it never really faced up to it, either. With the centennial approaching, a group of citizens decide to recreate the deportation, with locals playing real-life citizens on both sides.
Filmmaker Robert Greene was the perfect partner for this kind of project, as his past films (“Actress,” “Kate Plays Christine”) have explored the thin line between documentary and narrative. In often gorgeously composed widescreen shots, we meet the Bisbee residents who will take part in the reenactment, many with family histories intertwined with the deportation. One man tells the camera how his grandfather, the town sheriff, arrested his great-uncle, one of the strikers. It was literally brother against brother.
Other residents, like a gentle young man named Fernando Serrano, have no connection to the Bisbee Deportation, and only learn about it through the re-enactment. As we see Serrano, playing a Mexican immigrant in the reenactment, recreate scenes in which his mother implores him not to strike, the injustice of the deportation hits home for Serrano. He realizes there’s a “dark energy” underneath the town he thought he knew.
The film builds to the re-enactment of the deportation, which is fascinating to watch. We recognize the townspeople who we’ve met earlier, but then they disappear into their performances and we just see them as the historical characters they play. Then they snap back into focus. It’s as if, as we’re watching, we move back and forth between past and present.
The phrase “history comes alive” is a hackneyed phrase best left for Civil War re-enactors and frontier theme parks. But it fits here, as the unorthodox methods of “Bisbee ‘17” conjure up the past in a powerful and cathartic way.