The Big Picture

  • Bisbee ’17
    is a 2018 movie directed by Robert Greene that explores the 1917 Bisbee Deportation.
  • The film uses a hybrid of documentary and fiction filmmaking, casting locals to share their perspectives on the event.
  • Bisbee ’17
    challenges conventional Western narratives, exposing exploitation and systemic injustice in America’s expansion.



On July 12, 1917, a significant, grueling, yet largely forgotten event happened in the small town of Bisbee, Arizona, near the Mexican border. What became to be known as the Bisbee Deportation, saw over 1,200 striking mine workers forcibly deported and left to die in the New Mexico desert with a stark warning “never to return”. A hundred years later, the residents of Bisbee revisited this harrowing event, and Robert Greene’s 2018 historical film Bisbee ’17 records this in a unique blend of narrative re-enactments and documentary-style interviews. Many families were separated from loved ones. People lost their lives. Neighbors became enemies. In Bisbee ’17, Greene casts natives of Bisbee to tell their own story from their perspectives. As one participant says in Bisbee ’17, collaborating on the film provided the largest group therapy ever witnessed on-screen. The film allows the townsfolk to face their dark past head on and explore its enduring impact on the present. Bisbee ’17 chooses to showcase the rarely-depicted truth about how the West was truly won — through exploitation, displacement, and systemic injustice.



What Is ‘Bisbee ’17’ About?

Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 sees the present town meet its ugly past in a dual-timeline structure that blends historical reenactments of the 1917 Bisbee Deportation with contemporary interviews and reflections by the town’s current residents. The cast comprises native residents who take up different roles of the players in the initial 1917 event. The film begins with the residents preparing themselves for the reenactment, with Greene’s direction letting the characters (present-day witnesses) share tidbits of their personal lives and explain how they are historically tied to the Bisbee Deportation. In a movie-within-a-movie kind of setup akin to Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, the characters take up roles either as striking mine workers — mostly immigrants who were eventually deported or as the Phelps Dodge Corporation officials (the 1917 mining company where the strikers worked) and its apologists, who ensured the deportation took place.


In the historical event as in the film, local authorities led by Sheriff Harry Wheeler marshaled 2000 vigilantes and armed them to round up 1200 striking miners for deportation. In Bisbee ’17, the characters (witnesses) reflect on this event with varying knowledge about it and different perspectives. The characters leapfrog between expressing their individual points of view about the deportation and portraying the actual participants, where they defend, through acting, the actions of the characters they are playing. It is a docu-movie in which Greene makes the audience deliberately conscious that what they are watching is being acted out, yet it doesn’t take away the haunting nature of the harrowing event.

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With many witnesses, a standout character in the film is a striking miner played by Mexican-American actor Fernando Serrano. Serrano wasn’t aware of the 1917 atrocities until his involvement in the film, yet its injustices mirror his own life in which his mother was deported and later jailed when he was a child. The film’s reflection on the historical event and his own personal experiences sound an awakening bell for Serrano, whose political consciousness unravels right in front of our screens. Like a shout-out to Taylor Sheridan‘s Wind River, Greene’s Bisbee ’17 argues that the issues faced on the frontier are still alive in modern day America. By revisiting the 1917 deportation, Greene presents a revisionist Western that challenges the conventional romanticized narratives of the genre.


‘Bisbee ’17’ Is an Indictment of America’s Expansionist Agenda

Hollywood is awash with movies that romanticize the way America’s West was conquered. More often than not, the heroes in these movies are dreamers who do anything for personal prosperity. They fight off indigenous communities, killing, maiming, and displacing them. In Bisbee ’17, Greene questions this portrayal of how the frontier was conquered. The film gives a rare voice to the minority Mexican-Americans who were fighting for their rights while showcasing the brutality with which the West was conquered. Deportation as an act of aggression in the film is emblematic of the broader systemic exploitation and displacement that characterized America’s push for economic expansion.


Bisbee ’17 starkly reveals that capitalist dominance sometimes comes at the expense of human rights and dignity. In one grueling real-life story of the deportation in the film, a man kidnaps, arrests, and helps deport his own brother who is taking part in the strike. For the arresting man, the life, livelihood, and the dignity of, above everything else, his own brother is secondary to his economic endeavors. Thematically reminiscent of Salt of the Earth, whose bold approach to highlighting striking workers during the Second Red Scare led to its blacklisting, Bisbee ’17 confronts the brutal realities of America’s westward expansion.


Beyond the indictment of the Westward expansion, Bisbee ’17 describes long-standing consequences that came with such historical injustices, comparing them with, and contrasting with, modern-day issues. As the current Bisbee residents attest in the film, Bisbee ’17 dares to confront the effects of these historical events on contemporary society. Personal stories, like the one by Fernando Serrano, and reflections of the town’s residents reveal a community wrestling with its history and what to make of it for present and future generations. Bisbee ’17 seems to ask, “What is the real cost of the American Dream?” As Robert Greene states, “In Bisbee ’17, our goal was to use images from well-known genres to reveal how mythologies work on us today, and to expose these mythologies as performances that we can see through.”

‘Bisbee ’17’ Breaks the Mold With a Hybrid Documentary-Fiction Production Style


Bisbee ’17 is an innovative hybrid of documentary and fiction filmmaking that breaks quite a lot of molds. Robert Greene constructs a complex narrative spanning across the past and present through historical reenactments with contemporary interviews. Viewers get to see the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 happen again, but this time from the perspectives of residents of modern-day Bisbee playing the characters. By so doing, Greene merges the past and present, reality and fiction to give strong commentary on how history is remembered and reinterpreted. Greene doesn’t labor over the historical accuracy of costumes or sets in Bisbee ’17, instead, he is more interested in the accuracy of the details, letting the story unravel in modern day Bisbee as it is. The 2017 deportees are loaded on modern buses where they are told, “Enjoy the AC while you still got it.” This dual-timeline structure works to draw not only the audience into the historical event but also invites reflection on its long-lasting impact on the community.


The hybrid style adopted by Bisbee ’17 underlines subjective constructions of history with different perspectives and personal links to the past. The film’s reenactments are more than dramatization. They provide actors — who are real Bisbee residents — with an avenue to express their personal opinions and emotional reactions toward the historical event. It authenticates and deepens the feeling in the narration, interacts more with the historical event, and makes it more relatable and impactful. Greene applies a technique far away from the conventional documentary forms, demanding more from the film genre and creating a more engaging and challenging piece. In so doing, Bisbee ’17 achieves a compelling story while encouraging the viewer to question the way history gets recorded and remembered.


Bisbee '17 cast members standing together during the deputizing scene
Image via Doc Society

Bisbee ’17 is about collective memory and historical trauma shaping peoples’ place identities. Greene, in bringing the town’s population in 2017 to live out the events of 1917, assists the town in coming to terms with their shared memory of history and its implications. The reenactments are a group psychotherapy session allowing the residents to process, confront, verbalize, and debate one of the darkest moments in the town’s history. Through the film, an answer arises about how historical occurrences have an effect on cultural and social life within the participant communities.


Greene’s Bisbee ’17 demonstrates how history can be contested and remembered unevenly among members of a community. The contrast in the relevant but uneven perception of these residents, from the descendants of deported miners to those who made up with the mining company, makes this incident a complicated one in terms of communal memory. The film epitomizes through its images the fact that history is not happenstance, but a living, breathing story being passed on from limb to limb and dependent on the political, emotional, and ideological states of those passing it. Like Martin Scorcese‘s Killers of the Flower Moon, Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 is more than just a historical film, it is an audacious commentary on how America’s past injustices influence community identity. Bisbee ’17 reminds us that the past is not a distant memory but a living part of the community’s fabric, urging a collective reckoning with the stories we inherit and the truths we must confront to foster a more just future. Bisbee ’17 challenges us to acknowledge and engage with the complexities of our shared history.


Bisbee ’17 is currently available to stream on Hoopla in the U.S.

WATCH ON HOOPLA

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