ON SCREEN · FILM
This innovative documentary western recounts an Arizona town’s darkest hour—the deportation of 1,300 immigrant miners in 1917.
Discussion follows with Prof. Desiree Garcia and Georgetown Prof. Katherine Benton-Cohen, historical advisor to the film.
“It would be enough for any documentary to tell this piece of hushed-up history, but Bisbee ’17 is onto something more radical; watching it is like witnessing the defusing of a time bomb from a foot away.” —Time Out
“What we are witnessing is not the commemoration of a past disaster but its reanimation. Every important thing this movie is about is still alive.” —New York Times
Radically combining collaborative documentary, western-genre and musical elements, the film follows several members of the close-knit Bisbee, Arizona community as they attempt to reckon with the town’s darkest hour. In 1917, 1,300 mainly immigrant miners, on strike for better wages and safer working conditions, were violently rounded up by their armed neighbors, herded onto cattle cars and shipped to New Mexico. This long-buried and largely forgotten event came to be known as the Bisbee Deportation. A town seven miles from the US/Mexican border, Bisbee is uncomfortably familiar with current political tensions around deportation and immigration.
Somehow director Robert Greene was able to convince the entire town to recreate the incident on the day of its 100th anniversary, and the resulting group-therapy experiment makes for a fascinating film. Descendants of the original evictors cosplay with brandish rifles and scowls while local actors take to the streets chanting labor slogans. These dramatized scenes, based on subjective memory, buried guilt and suppressed racism, unfold as the remarkably game Bisbeeans attempt to exorcise their collective ghosts. But if Bisbee ’17 is a ghost story, it’s haunted by century-old conflicts that are still playing out today.
D: Robert Greene, US, 2018, 2h4m
More info about Prof. Katherine Benton-Cohen, historical advisor to the film:
Katherine Benton-Cohen is associate professor of history at Georgetown University. She is the author most recently of Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy (Harvard University Press, 2018), and previously of Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (Harvard University Press, 2009). A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Benton-Cohen has received numerous research fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and elsewhere. She currently serves as an Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lecturer. She and her work have appeared in media outlets including PBS American Experience, the BBC, Dissent, the New Yorker, Politico.com, and the Washington Post, and she served as historical advisor to the documentary feature film, Bisbee ’17 (dir. Robert Greene, 2017). In 2018, she served as an OAH-JAAS Resident Fellow at Chuo University in Tokyo, Japan.