Bisbee ’17 (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): As they straddle past and present

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Documentary film “Bisbee ‘17” presents a number of interesting and thought-provoking things via its unconventional approach, and I admire that a lot even though I often found myself struggling a bit to get how it intends to present its historical subject. As mainly revolving around the preparation steps for the recreation of an old tragic incident still haunting the places and folks in one small town in Arizona, the documentary often feels like a belated conversation between past and present, and we eventually find ourselves more involved in the process shown in the documentary than expected around the time when everyone is finally ready for action in front of the camera.

That tragic incident in question happened on July 12th, 1917 in a mining town named Bisbee. Due to a big copper mine near the town, Bisbee became one of the most populated spots in Arizona around the early 20th century as attracting lots of various workers and their families, but these workers often struggled with their harsh and difficult work environment, and that was how many of them came to join or support Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which was often regarded as a radical group by those rich and powerful people associated with several big mining companies operating in Bisbee. They were willing to suppress IWW and its supporters by any means necessary along with the US government, which had been in the need of constant copper supply since it came to participate in the World War I.

Not long after a big strike was initiated by a group of IWW members of Bisbee in late June of 1917, those big mining companies took a drastic measure with the corporation of local authorities. Under the leadership of the sheriff of Bisbee, 2,000 strikebreakers and hastily deputized citizens arrested 1200 people who were striking miners or their supporters, and, once they were gathered in a local ball park, all these arrested people were swiftly deported to the desert area of New Mexico while warned that they would be killed if they ever tried to return.

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As the documentary calmly looks around the places and folks in Bisbee at present, we come to gather more of its historical background bit by bit. After its local mining business came to decline around the 1950s, the town accordingly became a lot less populated than before, and that aspect is frequently emphasized throughout the documentary via a number of barren moments including the opening scene where the maintenance man of a local high school introduces himself and then shows us the inside of the school building as talking a bit about its old history. The school once could accommodate around 900 students, but its number of students has been decreasing since the shutdown of that copper mine, and we cannot help but sense some bitterness from the maintenance guy when he shows the empty auditorium.

As the 100th anniversary of that deportation incident comes, the documentary closely observes the preparation process for the public recreation of the incident. While we see a meeting for discussing how it should be presented, we also meet a number of local people who are going to play some key figures in the incident, and we come to get to know a bit about some of these people, including a lanky lad who gradually becomes one of more memorable figures in the documentary.

They and other people in the town have lots of things to talk about as the descendants connected with the deportation incident in one way or another. While some of them think those copper company owners and others responsible for the incident did what had to be done for getting rid of a trouble which could have ruined their town, others have different opinions from that, and we can see why the deportation incident is still a sensitive subject for many people in the town even though nearly 100 years have passed.

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Although it could show more historical background information for us to understand more of its big picture, the documentary keeps sticking to the personal feelings and thoughts generated from the participants of the public recreation of the deportation incident, and Robert Greene, who previously directed “Kate Plays Christine” (2016), slowly builds up narrative momentum via a series of engaging moments such as the one where a conservative old man playing the president of a big mining company is visited by a bunch of guys playing IWW members. The guys sing a certain well-known period song with a different lyric, and that is subsequently followed by some thoughtful musing from the old man, who comes to have a bit of understanding on the social/political position of those striking miners at that time.

In the end, everything in the documentary culminates to the public recreation of the deportation incident as expected. While we are constantly aware of its artificial aspects, this event somehow results in the uncanny resonance between past and present as its many participants come to throw themselves more into whatever is demanded by their roles, and, as one guy subsequently points out, it often does feel a group therapy for the town and its people.

On the whole, “Bisbee ‘17”, which was shown at the Jeonju International Film Festival two months ago, is not a conventional documentary at all, and you may feel impatience at times for good reasons, but it is still a fascinating piece of work to be appreciated for its unorthodox exploration of history and people. In short, this is one of better documentary films of last year, and I am willing to revisit it more getting more from it.

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