In powerful ‘Bisbee ’17,’ an Arizona town relives its darkest day

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Fernando Serrano plays a striker in the town’s historical reenactment in “Bisbee ’17.” | 4th Row Films

Bisbee, Arizona, has a rich history of mining, back when mining was a source of riches. But as we learn in “Bisbee ’17,” Robert Greene’s innovative documentary that incorporates dramatic re-creation with more traditional fact-finding, there’s a lot more to its history, not all of it good.

If you didn’t know that, that’s by design. While not exactly a secret, certainly the Bisbee Deportation isn’t something you’d find on a Chamber of Commerce flyer. Greene traces the history — “a genuine American tragedy,” according to someone in the film — while simultaneously documenting the town’s restaging of the event in 2017, its 100th anniversary.

Bisbee was a mining hub when demand for copper was great. But when the Industrial Workers of the World organized workers, the mine owners didn’t take kindly to union action.

Miners planned a strike in 1917. The sheriff quickly deputized many of the town’s citizens — more than 2,000 — to round up about 1,300 striking workers. The strikebreakers took the miners to Warren Ballpark, which still stands; whoever didn’t go back to work got loaded onto boxcars and transported to New Mexico, with a warning that if they ever returned they would be killed.

Most of the miners were from Mexico or Europe. Racism clearly played a role. But the dispute also pitted brother against brother; one man arrested his own brother at gunpoint, marched him to the baseball field and loaded him on the train. We meet their descendants in the film.

Tempers cool over the course of a century, and it’s never Greene’s intention to reopen old wounds. In fact, in some respects “Bisbee ’17” serves as a kind of therapy for the town. But it’s still difficult material. Greene follows Bisbee’s decision to reenact the deportation, a brilliant move that allows residents to talk about the event as they prepare to act it out, some learning as they go along.

It’s fascinating to watch them work out conflicting feelings. Some people side with the mines — they thought unionizing would break Bisbee’s lifeline. Others still struggle to reconcile how the town could simply erase 1,300 people and go about its business. It’s a civic production with primitive staging and props, but somehow it’s all the more effective for that — and more cathartic.

Particularly intriguing is Fernando Serrano, who plays one of the strikers. He treats the production as a journey, and it is difficult for him at times. For him, the reenactment isn’t just a lark. It’s an important part of their identity, both as people and as Bisbee residents.

And when the film arrives at the actual production, when people playing strikebreakers are herding “miners” into cobbled-together boxcars, it’s surprisingly intense, and ultimately moving. You can tell that it is for those taking part, as well — a sweep of emotion not everyone was expecting. It’s a terrific way to learn history: Don’t just read about it, but re-create it, and experience the emotion and the struggle yourself.

If Greene had simply told the story in more straightforward documentary fashion, “Bisbee ’17” would be an interesting film. By telling the story within the story, he’s done something more: He’s made an urgent, powerful one.

Director Robert Greene will appear for a Q&A after the 7 p.m. Oct. 5 screening at the Music Box. 

‘Bisbee ’17’


4th Row Films presents a documentary directed by Robert Greene. Running time: 112 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

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