A Commemoration of the Deportation of 1,200 Immigrant Miners in ‘Bisbee ’17’ premieres Monday July 15, 2019
A reckoning of Bisbee's darkest hour
Bisbee, Arizona, was one of the largest copper mining centers in America until it became a virtual ghost town in 1975 when its two massive mines were closed. Forty years later, Bisbee is a community of eccentrics, immigrants, hippies, bikers and drifters, attempting to reckon with a dark and violent history of a forgotten event known as the Bisbee Deportation. The film documents locals as they play characters and stage dramatic scenes from the controversial story, culminating in a largescale recreation of the deportation itself on the exact day of its 100th anniversary.
Directed by Robert Greene, Bisbee ’17 has its national broadcast debut on the PBS documentary series POV and pov.org on Monday, July 15 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series now in its 32nd season.
A town perpetually on the brink, Bisbee is near the border of Mexico and home to a politically leftist history. Whereas nearby Tombstone is the birthplace of the anti-immigrant Minutemen, Bisbee is more inclusive, even if many residents of the poorer surrounding communities consider the touristy “Old Bisbee” too gentrified. It’s a desert Twin Peaks, full of strange stories and peculiar mythologies. The two massive holes in the earth and semi-toxic manmade mountain serve as constant reminders of the town’s violent mining past.
On July 12, 1917, nearly 2,000 striking miners, many of whom were immigrants who had aligned with the radical IWW union, were violently extracted from their homes by a white-arm-banded force organized by the sheriff and the large mining corporations, including Phelps Dodge. The U.S. had just entered World War I, and rumors were swirling that these strikers were conspiring with the Germans and Mexican revolutionaries to blow up buildings in town and hamper the war effort. Echoing other moments in our nation’s history, fear and paranoia were used to motivate and organize a group of strikebreakers.
The miners were rounded up, led by gunpoint to the Warren baseball field, forced onto cattle cars and dropped in the middle of the barren New Mexican desert. They were left at an Army camp and never allowed to return to town. Many were lost to history. This malicious and largely forgotten act hastened the end of unions in Arizona, which today is a right-to-work state. One hundred years later, unspoken tensions hang in a town where many residents are descendants of miners and just as many are relatives of the company owners. As historian and Bisbee native Charles Bethea says, “The Deportation caused a wound that has never healed.” As the centennial anniversary of the deportation nears, the town begins to reckon with this still-divisive past by staging western or musical-style recreations in many of the places where the events in the story actually took place.
Bisbee residents bring their own personal histories to the fore: Sue Ray has long wanted to tell the story of her grandfather deporting his own brother, which lead to them never speaking again. Elsewhere in town, Annie disagrees strongly with her father (a man who became president of the mining company and sees the deportation as justifiable and even patriotic). Laurie is a local artist playing out her fantasies onscreen as a male IWW striker, while Mike is the keeper of the ballfield with complex views on who must choose which side to take. Meanwhile, Fernando, a 23-year-old gay Mexican-American whose mother was deported and jailed for immigration and drug charges, is experiencing a political awakening because he’s chosen to play the role of a Mexican miner.
These stories, told with a mix of documentary and dramatization, build up to a large-scale attempt to recreate the deportation itself. What happens when all these personal stories and perspectives converge? The challenges of wrangling and narrativizing this moment highlight the multilayered and often-conflicting way history gets retold and myths get made. Who gets to tell the stories of the past? Who is responsible when the ghosts return?
“Bisbee ’17 is a vivid exploration of the documentary form, expanding on the possibilities of nonfiction storytelling with a powerful reclamation of personal and collective history,” said Justine Nagan, executive producer for POV. “More than a century later, Bisbee’s violent past echoes in today’s fight over of immigration and labor rights. As one town grapples with its past, Bisbee ’17 asks a national audience what other histories across the country are waiting to be re-told?”
I’ve been going to Bisbee, Arizona since 2003, when my mother-in-law bought an old cabin in the eccentric former mining town near the border. I immediately fell in love with the place. My partner was born in Tucson and we have roots in the area, but nothing prepared me for this strange, magical, truly haunted enclave – and the secret history buried there. Since then, I’ve been dreaming of making a film that captures the unique and troubled spirit of Bisbee. The centennial of the Bisbee Deportation – a tragedy where 1200 striking miners, many of them immigrants, were marched out of town at gunpoint and loaded unto cattle cars – gave us the opportunity. Maybe it was just a matter of time before I made the Bisbee film – my first ever feature film idea back when I initially came to town was to “re-stage the deportation with the locals.” So after five feature documentaries, many of which use performance to try to create new ways of seeing and understanding, it was finally time to make the movie I’d been dreaming of.
The Bisbee Deportation is one of countless untold tales of radicalism and oppression in American history and I knew I wanted to tell the story when I first heard it in 2003. But we had relatively little idea when we started pre-production in the summer of 2016 just how relevant the story would become. As the calendar turned to the summer of 2017, with the centennial approaching, labor rights under unprecedented attack and a humanitarian crisis gathering on the U.S.-Mexico border, a sense of urgency began to set in for all of us. The desire for the community to tell this story was palpable and we filmmakers were providing the stage. They knew what we knew: the images that we were creating together would matter. Bisbee, in many ways, is a microcosm of the country and understanding the depth of what happened in the old company town is a way to grasp where we are today as nation, how deeply ingrained American mythologies are used to divide us, and what calamities await if we don’t heed the lessons of our history.
Our first mission, then, was to document the emotional awakening the town was experiencing as the centennial of the deportation approached. Then we began working with everyone from descendants of deportees to company families to create scenes that helped facilitate a kind of truth and reconciliation by way of layered performance. In my last several films, I’ve pushed further and further into the possibilities of collaborative, performative documentary filmmaking, where subjects and filmmakers work together to stage semi-constructed scenes that help the viewer imagine the internal lives of real people. With Bisbee '17, we’ve pushed this idea significantly forward. What we see is a working through of story and history and mythology as non-actors engage in “roles” that relate to their real lives and this collective trauma. The historical, the political, and the personal all become entwined as locals play dress up, portraying ghosts of a buried past. It all leads to a surprisingly cathartic and emotional place, where the collective performance of a town playing itself reveals both divisions and connections between people. Should we bury the past forever or should we work together to exorcise our demons? One white guy who played one of the vigilantes declares at the end of the large-scale recreation, “this is like the largest group therapy session ever.” A Mexican-American man who had played a deportee saw things a little differently. “You guys were good,” he said to a friend playing a deporter, “maybe too good.”
—Robert Greene, Director/Editor, Bisbee '17
About the Filmmakers
Robert Greene, Director/Editor
Robert Greene’s latest award-winning film Bisbee ‘17 premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. His previous film Kate Plays Christine won a Jury Award for Writing at Sundance 2016. Robert’s documentaries include the Gotham Awards-nominated Actress, Fake It So Real and the Gotham Awards-nominated Kati With An I. Robert was an inaugural Sundance Art of Nonfiction fellow in 2015 and is a three-time nominee for Best Director at the Cinema Eye Honors. The Independent named Robert one of their 10 Filmmakers to Watch in 2014 and he received the 2014 Vanguard Artist Award from the San Francisco DocFest. His first documentary, Owning The Weather, was screened at the COP15 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Robert has edited over a dozen features, including Her Smell (2018), Golden Exits (2017), Queen of Earth (2015) and Listen Up Philip (2014) by Alex Ross Perry, Amanda Rose Wilder’s award winning Approaching The Elephant (2014), Charles Poekel’s Spirit Awards-nominated Christmas, Again (2015) and Douglas Tirola’s Hey Bartender (2013). He has been a Sundance Edit Lab Advisor and was on the U.S. Documentary Jury for Sundance 2017. Robert writes for outlets such as Sight & Sound and serves as the Filmmaker-in-Chief for the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri.
Douglas Tirola, Producer
Douglas Tirola is an award-winning director and producer whose documentaries have been distributed around the world and have premiered at some of the most prestigious film festivals including Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin, HotDocs, and SXSW. Douglas’ latest film, Brewmaster, premiered at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival and was released by The Orchard. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon had its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures nationwide followed by a release on Showtime, History Channel and Netflix. The James Beard nominated Hey Bartender and the award winning All In— The Poker Movie were both picked up by Showtime Networks and Netflix. His first documentary as a director, An Omar Broadway Film, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival where HBO Documentary Films acquired it. Douglas’ producing credits include: Bisbee ‘17, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Kate Plays Christine, which played at the Berlin International Film Festival and won a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Making The Boys (Berlin International Film Festival) and Fake It So Real (True/False Film Festival), both NY Times Critics Picks and the award-winning Actress. Douglas has worked as a screenwriter for Paramount, Universal, Fox, Warner Brothers, Sony, and New Line. Earlier in his career, he worked on films with directors Woody Allen, Robert Benton and Penny Marshall - his first job in the film business was as a production assistant on the movie When Harry Met Sally. He is represented by William Morris Endeavor.
Susan Bedusa, Producer
Susan is an award-winning producer whose most recent films include Bisbee ‘17 (Sundance 2018, POV), Brewmaster (SXSW 2018, The Orchard) Kate Plays Christine (Sundance 2016 Winner) and A&E Indiefilm’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (Sundance 2015, Magnolia Pictures, Showtime Networks). Her 14 feature docs have all premiered at top festivals including Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Hot Docs, Edinburgh and SXSW and have enjoyed US and international theatrical releases as well as runs on premium cable, global television and all of the streaming platforms. Some of her partners include Magnolia Pictures, The Orchard, HBO, Showtime, POV, Netflix, Amazon, MTV and the History Channel. Susan is Senior Vice President of Production & Development at 4th Row Films, where she produces films from development through distribution. She is often asked to speak on industry panels and at mentoring events including IFP’s Independent Film Week Distribution Labs, the TFI/ESPN Doc Shorts Workshop and the CNN Films / Camden Filmmaker Retreat. Most recently she was named one of DOC NYC’s 40 Under 40 which honors top talents in the documentary field. Susan began her career working for producers Amy Robinson and Bob Balaban before becoming Director of Development for Fine Line Features founder, Ira Deutchman. She grew up working and watching movies at her parents’ arthouse theater, SoNo Cinema, in Connecticut.
Bennett Elliott, Producer
Bennett Elliott is an Emmy award-winning producer based in New York. She is the producer of Robert Greene’s Gotham Awards-nominated Bisbee ‘17 (2018), which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Bennett was the co-producer of Greene’s multiple award-winning Sundance documentary Kate Plays Christine (2016). She was selected as a 2017-2018 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow and is currently producing a series for Red Bull that is Executive Produced by David Byrne. Bennett has coordinated television series for Bravo, the Food Network and Sundance Channel. In 2013, she won an Emmy for her work on the television show Frankie Cooks. At 26-years-old, she was named Head of Production at Mustache, a Brooklyn-based creative agency. There Bennett produced hundreds of video campaigns for clients including American Express, Chevy, Ford, Rent the Runway, Rebecca Minkoff, Conde Nast and the Netherlands Board of Tourism. Her award-winning documentary, fiction film and music video work as producer and co-founder at the production collective House of Nod has taken her all over the world, including filming in Haiti, Israel, Paris, Barcelona, Peru and Amsterdam.
Director: Robert Greene
Producers: Robert Greene, Douglas Tirola, Susan Bedusa, Bennett Elliott
Editor: Robert Greene
Original Music: Lawrence Everson
Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White