January 17, 2018
Discrimination is rampant, and working conditions are poor. Safety, pay, and class-war all threaten the future of one of the highest producing copper mines in the United States. Workers are pitted against owners, as the rich receive their keep and leave the bees to fend for the mighty Copper Queen Mine. This may sound like a recurrent story, and it is! For the town of Bisbee, Arizona, it’s actually a centennial of truths reenacted every July.
Such is the basis of Robert Greene’s new documentary film, Bisbee ’17, premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah:
It’s 2017 in Bisbee, Arizona, an old copper-mining town just miles from the Mexican border. The town’s close-knit community prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Bisbee’s darkest hour: the infamous Bisbee Deportation of 1917, during which 1,200 striking miners were violently taken from their homes, banished to the middle of the desert, and left to die.
Townspeople confront this violent, misunderstood past by staging dramatic recreations of the escalating strike. These dramatized scenes are based on subjective versions of the story and “directed,” in a sense, by residents with conflicting views of the event. Deeply personal segments torn from family history build toward a massive restaging of the deportation itself on the exact day of its 100th anniversary.
Filmmaker Robert Greene confronts the current political predicaments of immigration, unionization, environmental damage, and corporate corruption with direct, haunting messages about solidarity and struggle. With consummate skill and his signature penchant for bending the boundaries of documentary, Greene artfully stirs up the ghosts of our past as a cautionary tale that speaks to our present.
But this isn’t the first time Bisbee’s secret has been told. In 1999, the Press re-released Robert Houston’s Bisbee ’17, for which the new film takes its name. Houston, a novelist and professor emeritus in creative writing at the University of Arizona, vividly re-creates a West of miners and copper magnates, bindlestiffs and scissorbills, army officers, private detectives, and determined revolutionaries in his historical fiction novel.
The protagonists in a bitter strike: the Wobblies (the IWW), the toughest union in the history of the West; and Harry Wheeler, the last of the two-gun sheriffs. In this class-war western, they face each other down in the streets of Bisbee, pitting a general strike against the largest posse ever assembled.
Against this backdrop runs the story of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, strike organizer from the East, caught between the worlds of her ex-husband—the Bisbee strike leader—and her new lover, an Italian anarchist from New York. As the tumultuous weeks of the strike unfold, she struggles to sort out what she really feels about both of them, and about the West itself.