In the morning on 12th of July 1917, 1200 men were held at gunpoint by sheriff and 2000 deputized citizens and deported from the town of Bisbee, Arizona into the desert. They were miners and mostly immigrants currently on strike for better working conditions. But Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which initiated the strike also believed that if just a couple of important mines such as those in Bisbee could be shut down, the military industry would be crippled and US would need to withdraw from the World War I they entered only three months earlier.
Robert Greene’s Bisbee ‘17 (2018) follows town’s effort to deal with its shameful and largely forgotten past on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Bisbee deportation when the preparation of a public re-enactment of the events takes place. However, the film does not observe the past, but rather our relationship with the past. Its protagonists live in Bisbee today and in one way or another relate to the deportation. It combines the elements of a documentary, re-enactment, western, or musical to create a multilayered essay on memory, forgetting, denial, myths, but also on capitalism, labour, propaganda, and environment.
Bisbee ’17 is Greene’s sixth feature documentary, though he is also known as an editor (of Alex Ross Perry’s films, for example). It offers yet another take on the notion of performing in our everyday lives, but this time it’s more political and bigger. The interview was conducted on Skype, ahead of the film’s screening at IFF Cinematik Piestany.
TH: Almost all of your films deal with acting and performing. Why is it such an interesting subject for you?
RG: I discovered what I was interested in with Kati with an I (2010). When we were filming Kati, she was pretending to be a grown-up and I became interested in this performance because it said a lot about her and about kids her age.
Now, I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again, so I tried to take this interest of mine to different places. In Fake It So Real (2011) it was the professional wrestlers; in Actress (2014) it was taking it as far as I thought I could go: What happens when you’re making an observational documentary about an actress? Is it a documentary? What is it?
With Kate Plays Christine (2016) I was asking: How do I take the knowledge that I felt I discovered in my own work and put it towards something that was outside of just my relationship with the subject? The origin of this film was me making film about something I didn’t feel like I have a right to make a film about, because ultimately Kate Plays Christine is about depression and suicide. And at the end it felt like I reached the point where I burnt down the whole thing – the notion of representation, the notion of storytelling. Not for the world, but for me personally. I could have easily stopped there and said I am done.
TH: So how did Bisbee ‘17 happen? Compared to your previous, more intimate films, it seems significantly bigger and more ambitious.
RG: With Bisbee ‘17 I returned to the first feature film idea I had. In 2003 when I went to Bisbee for the first time – my mother in law got a house there – I fell in love with the place and five years before I made my first feature, I had an idea of re-enacting the Bisbee deportation with the locals. I didn’t know how to do it back then, but as the 100th anniversary was coming I knew this is the time. The ambition and the size of it was the obvious step forward from the intimate. Even though I think the intimacy is associated with the place.
TH: Yes, there is a lot of shots of the town itself, just the streets, the houses, and surroundings of the town including the giant hole left by the mining company. It seems a bit unusual for a documentary dealing with people’s lives.
RG: For me the film was about the town and not the deportation. It was about how I perceived the town and how I perceived the layers of history and present. When you walk down the street you feel past and present as one; it is a profound sense in the town you can’t escape. All the drama that has happened in that small space; so many people have died working at those mines, so many people have come out maimed…
Bisbee ‘17 started from the knowledge and love for the place. Just as every town, Bisbee is a place with a lot of complex layers, but here you can see them really clearly. The scars of history are apparent all the time.
TH: The film has so many layers – it tells history and at the same time follows lives of the people in Bisbee today, there is the big re-enactment, but also some staged and scripted scenes, and so on. What was the process of adding these layers one atop another?
RG: Well, how do you follow up Kate Plays Christine that burnt everything to the ground? The next film needs to be crazier! Bisbee ‘17 is a re-enactment, a western, a musical – I immediately had this idea of using IWW songs… We put together these different layers and then I realized that’s exactly what Bisbee is. We were going to do a complex thing about complexity.
Together with our historical adviser Katie Benton-Cohen we crafted a couple of scenes based on the historical events and had them as a skeleton. When we were casting the roles, my rule was that every protagonist’s real life must have a relationship with the character they were creating. So already a complex thing took on another layer of complexity.
TH: You have already mentioned different cinematic genres. The western seems obvious not only for the film’s setting, but also because it’s basically one big myth of the American past. Why did you choose to use the genres?
RG: This wasn’t planned from the beginning, but each character ended up as if in their own version of the movie. Richard was in a western, Fernando was in an MTV musical, Laurie with the labour of her art was in a social realist film… I felt the multiple genres could reveal the fractured version of the truth. And I wanted the genres to clash – say, western and musical or soap opera and western or soap opera and documentary.
And don’t forget that IWW was a mythology, too, just as the sheriff was working from his own mythology – he was desperate to be a western sheriff slash cowboy hero. You can say that what actually happened that day was that mythologies were clashing directly. We wanted to say that in a deeper way, to create our own mythologies and let them clash.
TH: However, your film is not about what actually happened back then, but about what is happening in Bisbee today – with connection to the past. It’s not about 1917, but rather about 2017…
RG: I stole the title of Bisbee ‘17 from Robert Houston book of same name, but with interest of transforming the title to have this historical irony of ‘17. I love this historical irony – for example my Twitter name is prewarcinema as if there’s ever a moment that’s pre-war. The present tense of the name was always the aspect of the project; it was always going to be 2017 and I wanted you to slowly realize that.
TH: Is this the reason why we never really learn what happened with the deported?
RG: From the beginning we knew that the trains weren’t going to leave Bisbee. The story would stop with neighbours turning on neighbours and throwing them on the train cars. Part of the reason is that what happened from that point forward is so complex and rich that it’s for another project. There are 1200 stories of what happened to the deportees, there is not one story.
We wanted to see what was going on with the town in 2017, how the deportees stories function for the town today – how the town mythologize them or forget about them, how some people ignore ethnic cleansing aspect of it while some people dwell on it… Rather than showing 1200 individual fates we wanted the film to be about what this collectively means for the town today.
TH: You wanted to make a film about 2017 Bisbee and during the shooting of the film Donald Trump was elected President. How did this fact change your film?
RG: It was always clear that telling the story of the deportation would be a reflection on the present. For example, back in 2003 when I had the initial idea, there was a border crisis, too. It’s something that has been going on for a long time. Not to mention that our relationship with the immigrants in this country is deeply disturbing and has been from the beginning.
We started to shoot in October 2016, a month before the elections. At that point I think the idea of the film being about immigrant miners is less important than it being about unions and labour. I thought we were making more of a labour film. The moment Trump gets elected, the idea of telling the story took on an added resonance. In July 2017, some six months into his presidency when we are re-enacting the deportation, every single person no matter what their political views are knew for sure what these images would look like to people.
TH: What does it mean to you as a filmmaker that the film you are making is suddenly about something else – and it’s sort of beyond your control?
RG: You end up having an awful feeling your film is suddenly taking another life. It’s awful not because it’s not meaningful – it is meaningful to see the town trying to work through its scars. It’s just not something we intended.
I talk to my students about what I call the documentary cancer dilemma. Imagine you’re making a documentary about somebody and they get cancer. You are sad obviously, but when no-one’s looking you fist pump: “Yes, my documentary finally has some purpose of being made.” It’s a really fucked-up aspect of making films where your film suddenly has meaning because of how shitty the world is.
TH: One of the main protagonists of the film is Fernando, a young immigrant man who portraits an IWW member at the re-enactment. As the film progress Fernando seems to be more and more conscious of the social and labour issues – as if under the influence of the person he is portraying. Could you tell me more about Fernando?
RG: I wanted to use Fernando’s character to dramatize the evolution of the story towards the defeat, that is the deportation. At the beginning he says he is not political, that he has never heard about this story and kind of doesn’t really want to. And as you learn more about his personal life you learn that this kind of apolitical front is his shield.
When he’s playing his character and he shouts: “We are the IWW!” and he’s fighting, that’s all him. And then he’s chanting: “Remember Butte!” which is a reference to Butte, Montana, where some 160 miners were burned alive in the mines just days before the strike in Bisbee. I didn’t tell him to say that; it’s something he knew by that point of the filming process. So, you see this incredible transformation of a human being echoing the transformation of a character.
But part of this is just decision to make non-fiction. It’s not about my idea, it’s about how my ideas interact with the world. I am not interested in characters that I can create. I am interested in how real people and real stories transform, enlighten, and magnify my ideas.
TH: There is also an interesting story of the two brothers, one deporting the other. At the beginning of the film a granddaughter of the brother that deported says something to the effect that he needed to do this to protect the town from the Socialists. But at the end, during the re-enactment of the deportation, when one brother comes to the house of the other with a gun in the hand, he says: “Your brother’s keeping you safe from the mob.” These are two completely different interpretations of history, which also suggests there is basically no way for us to really understand what happened.
RG: When Sue says her grandfather was trying to protect the town from Socialism or Communism, that is a mythology. We are in July 1917, three months before the revolution in Russia, I am sure her grandfather didn’t know the word Communism. What she’s saying is a 20th century projection of a woman who lived through Cold War and Reagan. She is projecting the Cold War mentality on her historical reference and defending deportation of one brother by another basically saying he was a good Cold War Reagan warrior.
Meanwhile, it’s very important for Mel to script himself saying he is protecting his brother. That’s his fantasy, that’s his mythology. That doesn’t mean her grandfather wasn’t anti-leftist and that the mob wasn’t going to take the brother. Those things could be true and to your point that’s the mess of history – there is a million conflicting motivations.
But the more important point is this is how those two individuals, Sue and Mel, both projected their own fantasies because they needed to defend their own position. That doesn’t negate the truth, fantasies are just another layer of the truth.
TH: It also shows how important it is who gets to tell the history. For Bisbee today it is important to realize that only one version of history stayed in town, because people with different point of view were deported.
RG: If you look at the photographs they are staged from the company’s perspective. They were used as evidence by people who defended the deportation saying that it was peaceful: Look, none of the photographs show anything, no-one’s gun is on anyone’s back.
You’re right, the deporters’ version of the event stayed in town. But it is also true that just a couple of years later the deportation was already considered such a scar, such a blackmark on the town that it was erased. It’s not like in The Act of Killing where the perpetrators were celebrated as heroes. Part of what you’re detecting with those two versions of projecting a mythological reality about what motivated grandpa to deport uncle Archie is shame. The deporters were the writers of the story of Bisbee going forward, but what you’re also seeing is a shame of what happened in the town.