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‘Bisbee ’17’ Review: Robert Greene’s New Film Is an American Riff on ‘The Act of Killing’ — Sundance 2018

"Kate Plays Christine" director Robert Greene returns with a fascinating and dream-like mosaic about a forgotten American tragedy.

“Bisbee ’17”

Located just seven miles from the Mexican border and caught in a self-reflexive time loop that forces it to constantly re-enact its own history, the city of Bisbee, Arizona couldn’t be more ripe for a Robert Greene movie if he had founded the place himself. A Twilight Zone mining town that turned its bottomless copper mine into a tourist attraction shortly after it shut down in the ’70s, Bisbee survives by miming the same work that once made it rich. Someone describes it as “the town too loved to die.” For Greene, whose documentaries (“Actress,” “Kate Plays Christine”) regularly invite their subjects to perform the past in order to humiliate the porous borders between fact and fiction, Bisbee was just waiting for someone to capture it on camera. It would have been a natural canvas for Greene, even if not for the low-key ethnic cleansing that’s haunted the city for the last 100 years.

The truth is that the closing of the Copper Queen Mine is hardly Bisbee’s defining tragedy, even if it’s the one that residents will confront. In fact, the mine was the backdrop for an atrocity that has since been buried even deeper into the ground, the city growing around it like eager weeds around a tombstone.

On July 12, 1917, nearly 2,000 striking miners — most of them Eastern European and Mexican immigrants — were rounded up by their deputized friends and neighbors, herded onto cattle cars, and abandoned in the middle of nowhere. Known as the Bisbee Deportation, this traumatic event has since benefited from an impressive act of collective forgetting, as many of the locals are descendants of those responsible and would rather ignore (or erase) that chapter of the history books.

“Bisbee ’17”

Greene wasn’t going to let them do that, not with the centennial so imminent. Acting out of moral obligation and/or opportunism (a distinction he leaves viewers to make for themselves), the filmmaker and his crew descended upon Bisbee and instigated a group catharsis, encouraging residents to participate in a mass re-creation. The result is a singularly American riff on “The Act of Killing,” a fascinating and dream-like mosaic that’s less driven by residual anger than by cockeyed concern, less interested in exhuming the past than in revealing its value to the present.

Greene begins by introducing a number of townsfolk, highlighting some who are eager to dredge up the Deportation (e.g. a historian and a local artist), some who have a more complicated relationship with the event (a woman named Annie is troubled that her father, a former mining company president, believes the cleansing was the right thing to do), and some who have never been able to shake it from their family trees (Sue Ray frequently recalls the story of how her grandfather rounded up his own brother).

Most engaging of all are the people who were once removed from Bisbee, and are now finding their way back. People like the Lebanese transplant who runs the convenience store and embodies the best of what truly makes America great.  In the best and most pointed part of the film’s climactic re-staging, the man is dragged from behind the counter of his shop while in plainclothes, instantly erasing the 100-year gap between the Bisbees of then and now. It’s one of several moments that arrive with ominous echoes of the Stanford Prison Experiment, though Greene uncharacteristically skirts any ethical concerns about his process. In fairness, the re-creation is confined to a single day, which isn’t enough time for anyone to grow a little too attached to their roles. On the other hand, we never see what sort of long-term impact this event might have had on those involved.

If any one character emerges as a focal point, it’s Fernando, a 23-year-old gay Mexican-American with a sweetly curious disposition and cheekbones that were shaped for the screen. A first-generation immigrant whose mother was deported on drug charges when he was a kid, Fernando is effectively cast as the film’s conscience, Greene placing him in the role of a Mexican miner and instigating the young man’s political awakening. There’s something a bit false and self-satisfied about how Greene engineers that personal growth, but “Bisbee ’17” is about nothing if not film’s power to provoke change, either by providing a cross-section of time or simply by luring people out of their own perspectives.

It’s unclear what activities (if any) the Bisbee residents planned for the centennial prior to Greene’s arrival, but it seems obvious that none of this spectacle would have been possible if not for the cameras. Nothing shakes things up quite like the presence of a film crew, the promise of a movie unstitching the fabric of reality; it’s like finding a hole in the sky. It’s a good thing that Greene knows what he’s doing, and that his work is never destructive, because there’s something vaguely dangerous about the power he seems to wield over these people.

That palpable sense of power is also a testament to Greene’s evolving skills as a storyteller, which grow more impressive with each film. Snaking together a dozen emotional through-lines and marshaling the whole of Bisbee towards July 12th with the inexorable force of a prophecy, the director creates an unreal vibe that never cleanly aligns with traditional modes of narrative or documentary cinema. Whether leading Fernando through an eerie musical number that revives the tactics of the radical IWW union, staging a visceral shootout, or simply interviewing people in their homes, Greene threads the past into the present and vice-versa until it’s hard to parse the living from the dead, refashioning Bisbee into a living ghost town — Schrödinger’s City.

If the process is considerably more interesting than what it says about then or now, that’s not much of a detriment to the film itself. “Bisbee ’17” doesn’t feel entirely like a seance or, a warning sign, or — as one participant describes it — “the largest group therapy session ever.” On the contrary, it most clearly resolves as a response to one of the most tantalizing questions about the Deportation that Greene never addresses head-on: What does it mean to be “left for dead?” 100 years later, we’re still working that out.

Grade: B+

“Bisbee ’17” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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