Wakefield Doc Fest: Film reveals way to heal divisions in America — make art together

BISBEE 17 describes a long hidden incident that resonates strongly today in a divided America.

Robert Greene is an established American documentary filmmaker with six features  under his belt. All of them are, in essence, an exploration of the intersection between performance and documentary film, he told ARTSFILE in an interview.

“It started when I was filming my half-sister as she was graduating from high school in a film called Kati With An I.

“What I had detected in her was that she was pretending to be an adult. You are documenting a teenager in her last couple of days of high school as she is pretending to be an adult. The pretending was what I was interested in.”

That was followed by a film about professional wrestling, then a film called Actress about an actor and then a film with an actor replaying a historical trauma.

All of that leads right to the film BISBEE 17.

Bisbee, Arizona, is an eccentric old mining town close the Mexican border. In 1917, nearly 2,000 immigrant miners were violently rounded up, herded onto cattle cars and dumped in the desert. The little known event is called the Bisbee Deportation. Greene’s film can be seen at the Wakefield Doc Fest on Feb. 28 and Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m.

This documentary captures a recreation of the deportation by townsfolk that Greene instigated and then filmed.

“I am interested in the way people take on roles and what that reveals about their ideas, about the world and in this case what it reveals about history and how we construct mythologies. It’s about how we forget about stuff and why we need to rethink and reconstitute what history is and what it means to us today.

“When you watch people playing the roles in the film what you are really watching is people working through historical trauma, memory and what matters.”

Greene knows Bisbee well. He started going to the community in 2003 when his mother in law to be bought an old mining cabin as a getaway place. Bisbee is a place that shouldn’t exist without the copper mines.

“Improbably it has survived the mine closures and that’s an amazing thing. It should be a ghost town, but it miraculously is not. I went there to help my then future wife work on the house and I fell in love with the place.”

The falling in love and learning about the deportation happened on the same trip, he said.

“Immediately I was saying we should re-enact this with the locals. I really didn’t know what that meant at the time and I had no idea how to pull that off so in a way the film is 15 years in the making.”

When you walk the streets of Bisbee, Greene said, there are ghosts everywhere.

“I don’t believe in ghosts per se but I believe in them in Bisbee because they are there. I feel that was what I was trying to work out.”

He knows the film raises the spectre of immigration and nativism.

“We started filming before Trump was elected. Our first trip there I thought of it as a labour story. It’s very difficult to tell a labour story. But on my first trip there, there were two groups of vigilantes, one called the Freedom Fighters and one called Minute Men who were both found to be killing people who had crossed the border.”

“This issue is not a Trump issue, but it has only gotten worse with him and a lot of things have been exacerbated by Trump.

“I would say by the time you get to the summer of 2017, every single person, no matter their political beliefs, knew exactly what these images would mean to the world.”

The recreation “was pretty much all townfolk. We did bring in couple of people from Tombstone, which is about 15 minutes away. That’s as far as anyone travelled.

“It’s a mix of people who self-identify as actors and those who don’t.”

The recreation of the deportation happened on the 100th anniversary of the event, he said.

“What you see is what it was. Hundreds and hundreds people turned up to watch the recreation including my family. You can see my kids in a lot of the shots.

Art making is a community building exercise, Greene said, but “we were careful not to be too pretentious and precious about what the process was going to be.

“The last thing I would want to say is something like ‘Guys we are going to break down barriers today’. The moment you say that the barriers go up.

“But we did see the barriers come down. There were people involved who held different beliefs.”

He does regret that not many Mexican-Americans were involved.

“We tried to get a couple of local unions, but they were very suspicious of the whole process. They just didn’t show up.”

Ultimately, the reality is that Bisbee is a divided place. It used to be that the workers and management were the divide in the town. Today it is the old mining families and the new lefties who have come into town. Bisbee has been an arts community since the 1970s.

“That is the new tension,” he said.

Why does this film work?

“In times of horror, you are hungry for comedy.” Greene believes that “in times of division, you are hungry for coming together. It is our natural state to look for things that show we are not as divided.

“There is real talk in the U.S. of a possible civil war. That is not phoney. When you have things like Charlottesville, when you have people threatening to bring guns if Trump impeached” it’s getting serious.

“The divisions in this country are deep seated and growing more and more intense since Vietnam. A lot of the movie is about those divisions as it is anything.

“I think audiences, when they see the film, I do believe they see how art can brings us together. It makes me choke up right now thinking about how much of an emotional experience it was to see people coming together to tell a story in an artistic way.

“I do believe this is a model. The film premiered at Sundance two years ago and we have been touring with it all around the world. As we show the film, I am always moved when people say this happened in my community, what if we did this same thing here.

He says: “Do it. Go bring people together. Go make it. There is opportunity to heal division. That’s what I am most proud of in making this film.”

The filmmakers have gone back to Bisbee twice to screen the film on the anniversary (July 12) and will go back again this year to continue the conversation.

Greene is now editing his next film, but he knows this is a life’s work.

“With big documentaries, you never really move on from them. Bisbee is a town that I love. For one thing, the event can’t be buried again and we want to be part of that.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.