Documentary reveals Bisbee’s dark past

Fernando Serrano on July 17, 2017, during the re-enactment of the Bisbee deportation for the film “Bisbee ’17.”

Robert Greene takes audiences on a journey through one of labor history’s darkest moments in his documentary “Bisbee ’17.”

Greene’s film, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and was released in select theaters on Sept. 7, documents the city of Bisbee re-enacting and facing what is one of Arizona’s darkest moments in history.

What was once Arizona’s richest cities has one of the darkest pasts. On July 12, 1917, more than 1,000 miners who were members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union were violently rounded up and dragged out of their homes. Two thousands of their fellow neighbors, deputized citizens who called themselves armed loyalists, came for them. They shoved the miners into cattle cars for a 16-hour train ride without any food or water.

They took them to the middle of the New Mexico desert and told them to never come back to Bisbee. This is the Bisbee deportation of 1917.

In justifying the deportation, the mining company and citizens said the striking miners posed a threat to the American way of life. The miners were on strike against the copper mining company Phelps Dodge, which owned and controlled most of Bisbee at the time. Members of the IWW were demanding better working conditions and overall better treatment. Most of the men were either Mexican or Eastern European. Better paying jobs with the company went to white men.

“The ’17 in ‘Bisbee ’17’ is for 2017,” said Greene. The film is not meant to just focus on the events  in Bisbee, but on the present state of Bisbee and how the past can still be felt a century later. Greene forces Bisbee to confront and remember a key part of its history that it would rather forget.

“You feel the past and present collapsing into each other,” Greene said.

He recreates the events of the deportation on the 100-year anniversary, July 12, 2017, by using current residents of Bisbee as actors and follows different key characters throughout the film, getting their perspectives on what happened so long ago and how it affects them today.

The fact that so many people in the film who called Bisbee home had no idea about the strike or the deportation is heard over and over again.

“This isn’t something that was taught in school,” one person says in the film.

Greene said he picks on this idea, people not being formally taught about these events, throughout the film by filming and staging numerous scenes, including the opening scene, in different schools around Bisbee.

It was exciting to shoot in Bisbee schools where for over 100 years the Bisbee Deportation was not discussed, said Greene. It’s poetic and ironic.

People who did know about the deportation learned it from stories passed down by relatives. Key residents who have major acting roles tell how they feel about the events of the past, some saying that what happened was unjustifiable while some people on the other hand say they would do it again.

 A woman, the daughter of a man with ties to the mining company, talks about how she was raised to believe that what happened was necessary for the greater good of Bisbee, “in other words they weren’t deported.”

“The word deportation is alive with meaning,” says one resident in the film. The film conjures up issues of immigration, deportation and labor, which are issues that are still dealt with and discussed in modern day Arizona.

“It couldn’t be more relevant,” said Greene. “It was on all of our minds that these images we are creating would be immediately relevant and immediately frightening.”

Leading up to the release of the film Greene released six short films that focus on different aspects and people in Bisbee. The film has been released in select theaters across the country. Click here to find a theater near you. 

Pablo Lopez is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the university of Arizona. Contact him at pabloreyy@email.arizona.edu

Click here for a Word version of the story and high-resolution photos