A terrible anti-union event that occurred in Bisbee, Arizona in 1917, buried in that former mining town’s history, has been re-enacted and re-examined in the stirring documentary directed by Robert Greene. Some 2000 striking miners, many of them Mexican immigrants, were rounded up in what came to be known as the Bisbee Deportation, put in cattle cars and shipped into the New Mexico desert, where they were callously left to die if they couldn’t make it to safety.
That lethal episode was buried in the town’s history as a shameful event a century ago. It was one of those open secrets few liked to talk about. But the occasion of the roundup’s centennial emerged as an excellent opportunity for Greene to make a timely film as the town got into the spirit of looking into the blot on its past.
In an effort to recall what happened, townsfolk took different roles to re-enact the roundup ad mass deportation and Greene creatively filmed lthe proceedings. The re-enactment was much like the commemorative staging of Civil War battles. People donned period dress and tried to summon the atmosphere that prevailed with some acting the part of vigilantes, others the victims.
What took place in 1917, just after the U.S. entered the war in Europe, was in some sense a classic union battle for improving the lot of the miners exploited in the company town with low wages and dangerous working conditions. The situation was intensified by the role of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, and local authorities stirred up fear of terrorism as an excuse to crack down ruthlessly. But it was a naked case of strikebreaking, not only by the authorities, but by townspeople who joined in.
What is revealed is that various Bisbee residents are influenced by the role that their ancestors played in the atrocity. The descendants comment on camera and the actual roundup is dramatized. The town remains depressingly divided, with some still defending the need to side with the mining company.
When one views the film, current anti-immigrant agitation and government policies may well come to mind. Even what occurred one hundred years ago emerges as a nasty illustration of how demagoguery can result in mass suffering. And as for the fight against union rights, today’s anti-labor forces are especially active and mostly successful despite some pro-labor stirrings and victories. Distributed at this time “Bisbee ’17” makes a moving and vital statement. An Impact Partners release. Reviewed September 5, 2018.