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Director Robert Greene On Haunting New Documentary, 'Bisbee '17'


We've all become aware of how hard it can be to grapple with some of the uglier aspects of American history. I'm thinking here about the recent conflicts over Confederate monuments or the Confederate battle flag. And that struggle isn't just about the physical object but about how to remember decisions and events, especially events that have been long buried in the recesses of different memories. That's the subject of a provocative new nonfiction film by Robert Greene. It's called "Bisbee '17." It documents the reenactment. of a disturbing event from the history of that Arizona mining town. But it's also something like a collective reckoning by residents of that town with a violent episode from their past.

The event itself has become known as the Bisbee Deportation. On July 12, 1917, roughly 1,200 copper miners, who'd been striking for better wages and safer working conditions, were rounded up at gunpoint, some by their own relatives, and sent via cattle car to the New Mexican desert, where they were left to die. Director Robert Greene joins us from NPR's New York bureau to talk about this. Robert Greene, welcome. Thanks so much for talking with us.

ROBERT GREENE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, I want to mention we are referring to this as the Bisbee Deportation because that's how people there talk about it. But it took place across state lines, not international borders. But tell me why you wanted to make a film about it.

GREENE: I guess part of it was just my love for the place because I don't believe in ghosts, necessarily. But I do believe in ghosts in Bisbee (laughter). It's a place that feels haunted. And when you walk down the street, you can't help but feel the presence of something. The mysteries are sort of painted in the walls. So, strangely, hearing about the deportation, I guess it felt like I knew something like that had happened. And my first instinct was, maybe we can recreate this with the locals. But there are still divisions in town. You get the sense that it's still reckoning with being a company town.

The broader context really is that Bisbee was known as a white man's camp at the time. But they brought in a lot of immigrant labor, so it was many Mexicans, many Eastern Europeans. And then, when the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, came in and radicalized the local union, there was this feeling that the socialists are trying to take over and stop the war. And war is really good for business, so a lot of rumors spread. A lot of what we would call today fake news was spread about dynamite in the hills, basically.

MARTIN: Were residents already talking about commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Bisbee Deportation, or is that something that got launched because you got interested?

GREENE: No, there was a committee started to find ways to commemorate. And part of our original goal, and remains in the film in some ways is documenting some of those processes. So they were coming together. And then, we started slowly sort of moving towards this idea of a reenactment.

MARTIN: So the film weaves together interviews with current Bisbee residents and images of those same residents performing. Let me just play a short clip from the scene where the miners were being rounded up. And here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED REENACTOR #1: On the car. On the car. On the car. On the car. Get out there.


UNIDENTIFIED REENACTOR #2: Get your hands off of him. Get your hands off him. Get your hands off of him.


MARTIN: So even though you know that it's a re-staging, it feels really violent. It feels traumatic. You can hear how seriously the people took their roles. And I was just wondering - how did people feel about this while this was all going on?

GREENE: When we first started talking about reenactment, people were worried about trivializing it. And that's partly because when we started making the film in October of 2016, no one suspected at the time how relevant and scary it would be to be recreating this in July of 2017. It's really important to note that the '17 in "Bisbee '17" is very much 2017. We're telling a story about the past, but the whole thing takes place in the present. When you see people recreating this moment, you really get to know the people themselves, so that - you're watching people that you've spent time with over the course of the film coming together to do this. And that brings up a lot of questions.

For us, it was a little bit surprising and shocking. Whenever I said action, the violence that you're talking about, we didn't direct that to happen. That's what the people sort of brought to the table, and that was a little bit startling for me. I remember, a couple times, people were being thrown on the ground. And then, we had to, like, pause, and it goes - hey, guys, we didn't need that. But then, eventually, I realized that it wasn't really about our idea of what was happening. It was totally about the town doing what they felt they needed to do. We ended up sort of just refereeing as much as we were directing it.

MARTIN: You know what else people might find surprising? People to this day in the town believe that the deportation was correct and right. And they sympathize with the people who carried it out, particularly people who are descendants of people who had a hand in it. I just want to play a clip from Sue Ray.


SUE RAY: I am very proud of my grandfather. He felt he was responsible, along with those that worked for the company, to make certain that we were protected from becoming taken over by the socialist, by communism, that he had to go and arrest his own brother and send his brother out into the unknown world.

MARTIN: And what's so powerful about this is that you let people grapple with this themselves and come to their own conclusions. And here's another resident's take.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When you go through that list of deputies, you see that there is one Slavic name. Everybody else is an Anglo-Saxon. So my conclusion - after all of this research, the deportation was not a response to a labor action. It was that to a limited extent, but it was also in the nature of an ethnic cleansing.

GREENE: That's - one of the most remarkable things about Bisbee is that the tension in town is because it was and still has the sense of being a company town. So Sue Ray, for example - her father worked with the company, basically, Phelps Dodge. The Phelps Dodge hospital was a great hospital. The Phelps Dodge school was a good school. And she grew up loyal and thankful for a company that made her life great. And so when she has to then grapple with this thing that Phelps Dodge and other companies sort of conspired to pull off, she has to sort of go through a lot of mental leaps to justify that. And some are her own beliefs, and some are just really trying to work through her family history. But then, at the same time, you have people in town who aren't necessarily mining families being - can look at it with a little bit more distance and say, this is, basically, an atrocity.

MARTIN: You pointed out that the '17 in the title of the film refers to 2017. We are having some very difficult conversations in this country right now, not just about the past but also about the way forward. One of the residents said after reenacting the roundup, quote, "this was like the largest group therapy session." But that's a very unique set of circumstances. Do you have any thoughts about how perhaps the rest of us could talk about difficult things that have happened in this country's history, where there are very different opinions about it?

GREENE: It's important to note that that's one, you know, white guy's opinion. I think other people were having, you know, different thoughts through the reenactment. It's a strange thing that we did. We dressed people up in a town full of ghosts. Everybody felt that it was a conjuring of something. The presence of this event was in everything that we were doing those days. And then, they sort of self-directed themselves, kind of led themselves down this path of recreating this violent episode. And, in some ways, we were collaborating on the highest way. Like, I was asking for certain things, and they would push back and do their own things. And it was just really organic collaborative thing.

It felt, to me, and it continues to feel, like it really was a group of people with different ideas about what was right, what was wrong, what's right today, what's wrong today, especially in a border town like Bisbee. These things are charged every single day in a way that - like me living in Missouri. I don't have to think about them in the same way. But they came to some conclusions in their action. Something about just coming together and taking this very seriously and taking what happened very seriously, it's inspiring to me because I think we can find methods of conjuring and dealing with our past in all kinds of ways.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, this is not a spoiler alert. At least, I don't think it is. The key piece of information seems to be missing. Like, what happened to these people who were sent out into the desert? The film doesn't tell us. Is that deliberate, or is it that you just don't know?

GREENE: No. It's very deliberate that we don't talk about that. My favorite thing is that that's often the first question asked. And if that's the first question asked - what happened to these 1,200 people who were sent into the desert? - then we've done part of our job because the question of what happened to them has not been asked. The fact that a hundred years later, it took this centennial committee in Bisbee to start the process of really figuring out what happened tells you all you need to know.

MARTIN: That's the director of "Bisbee '17," Robert Greene. He also serves as filmmaker-in-chief for the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri. The film opens in New York on September 5 and will be touring to a number of cities after that. You can go to the film's website for more information. Robert Greene, thanks so much for talking with us.

GREENE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.