HISTORY AMISS - An Interview with BISBEE ’17 director Robert Greene

Thu, Oct 4th, 2018

by Steven Prokopy

For several years, documentary filmmaker Robert Greene has examined the process of creating a performance and how the act of becoming someone else reveals a great deal about who the performer is. In 2011’s FAKE IT SO REAL, Greene looked at the world of independent pro wrestling; at its core, 2014’s ACTRESS was about a woman playing a version of herself; and 2016’s Sundance favorite KATE PLAY CHRISTINE profiled actress Kate Lyn Sheil prepping to play newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide on the air in 1974. There are times in his films when the lines between performer and character are deliberately and masterfully blurred, never more so than in his latest endeavor, BISBEE ’17, about a former mining town on the Arizona-Mexico border preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the darkest day in its history with a re-enactment film of said day. 

The incident in question—which is now called the Bisbee Deportation—concerns the rounding up and shipping off of 1200 mostly immigrant miners who were in the early stages of organizing into a labor union. The day turned brother and brother, friends against friend, neighbor against neighbor and revealed a decidedly racist core to the town. That day is one that is still being debated by the residents to this day, with many towing the mining company line that extracting those miners kept the town from erupting into violence; while others see it as the ultimate act of corporations squashing workers’ rights. The deportation is much talked about in the town, which makes this re-creation all the more curious, as it opens up decades-old wounds and gives the players a chance to work out some of their aggressions about the town’s troubled past.

Foregoing the typical fly-on-the-wall documentary approach, Greene orchestrates a great deal of what goes on during the filming, while giving us a window into how a smalltown maintains a balance in the present, even if its been built on a foundation of troubling behavior. The way the modern-version of the retelling is structured (and perhaps adjusted to reflect the collective memory) is one of the highlights of this Sundance hit. The result is a haunting, emotional and oddly relevant tale that is one of the best documentaries of the year, in a year with a great number of winning docs. 

When he isn’t making compelling documentaries, Greene is an in-demand editor, most notably cutting all of director Alex Ross Perry’s recent works, including his soon-to-be-released HER SMELL, which just had it debut at the Toronto Film Festival.

The film opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, October 5; Greene will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A, moderated by filmmaker Steve James (HOOP DREAMS, ABACUS), after the 7pm show on Opening Night.


Question: In your last few films, you are attempting to capture the process of creating a performance. What is the fascination there, and why do you keep coming back to that?

Robert Greene: When you put an actor in a documentary—and I mean “actor,” broadly speaking—something happens, like a chemical reaction. It’s like this idea of acting inserted in this concoction of authenticity. And what happens is certain built-in element that we wouldn’t otherwise be seeing can be seen. For ACTRESS, the idea is that we play roles in our daily life. She is an actor who is working through things as a human being, but the fact that she’s playing to the camera makes you think through what you’re seeing, and you start to think about how you play roles in your own life, and how she’s trapped in certain roles socially. With each movie, I’m trying to use that method to get at something else.

With this movie, it really is about the built-in mythology that comes with re-creating a story and what those mythologies say about today and what they say about what happened in 1917. So the idea of the West, what it means to be a radical, what it means to be a company man versus someone who wants to blow up the system. For me the key ingredient is contradiction. You meet [Bisbee residents] Fernando, you meet Richard, you meet Doug and Dick Graham, all these people who are real people in town, who have real opinions and are fighting through and trying to understand this story. And then you see them dressed up and become something else. Within that process, there’s a transformation that allows for other layers of storytelling to get in there. You can see people thinking through things. On the surface of the image, these contradictions emerge. For me, this is the way to make the ’17 in BISBEE ’17 mean 2017.

You call them contradiction, but as someone who always saw narrative features and documentaries as different things, you’re blurring the lines here to such a degree that it creates a wonderful tension—what is real, what isn’t, does it matter as long as it gets to some fundamental truth? You put the audience in an uncomfortable place, which is great. 

RG: Frankly, I think we should be watching all documentaries with some level is dis-ease. To me, a few things are absolutely taken for granted in terms of how we watch documentaries—that they’re authentic, truthful or trying to be truthful. Everyone accepts them as constructions at this point, but they are supposed to have a basic truth in them. I’d rather you be questioning what you’re seeing for a couple reasons. One, for more media-literate reasons—we should be asking questions of every image that we see and asking how it’s constructed. Beyond that, I think there’s great potential for drama in there.

That tension that you’re describing, if the film is about trying to understand history and what happened, then what better way to open up those perceptual floodgates than have the basic question of how and why this story is being told this way and whom is directing the story? What are people bringing to the story themselves? To me, it’s not about blurring boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. In many, many ways, those boundaries have never existed and never will, in terms of what a movie really is. I’m trying to open up ways of seeing and understanding. This story is more than about imbedded, deeply held mythologies. It’s about capitalism, the West, about all these things. The tension you feel hopefully gives you an intellectual and emotional way to understanding what it means to process this story. It’s all from trying to make you feel something and think through something.

It goes back to that age-old belief that the second you introduce a camera into a situation, everybody is putting on an act.

RG: To me, that’s a given. The end goal is not “Oh my god, we’re all performing.” That’s not interesting. That’s the starting place for me. It goes deeper. When someone is sitting there, typically I ask them to count to 10 before they introduce themselves, and there are these pauses before people speak. There’s a formal element where you’re thinking about performance and the self-consciousness of being in an interview set up. But there’s another element where I feel like, having been to Bisbee many times, you feel the presence of ghosts in those moments. In the silences, you feel genuine presence. So the methods aren’t necessarily self-conscious, they aren’t meant to end at being self-conscious but end there, hopefully somewhere much deeper.

KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE was never about “Acting is crazy,” it was always about “What does this method of looking at something conjure?” It felt like a conjuring of what it felt like to be suicidal. The film is suicidal itself in some sections. It kills itself. It’s never a goal to blur the lines; it’s always about starting there and going somewhere deeper.

You mentioned ghost, in a sense, you’re resurrecting ghosts that may not go back to rest easily once this re-enactment happens. Is there a danger to this particular process?

RG: Of course there is. I hope you’re questioning that the whole time. I think one of the central questions the movies asks implicitly, if not explicitly, is Do we leave the ghosts buried, or do we bring them forward to try and understand them and resurrect them and maybe even destroy them like Ghostbusters? I don’t know that there’s an easy answer. I do know that the community was ready for this. We instigated a certain amount of this, but the centennial was already happening, people were already discussing how to memorialize this and how to bring it forward.

We actually came back to Bisbee for the 101st anniversary to show the film—we showed it three times—and everyone from Fernando to IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] members and people who very much empathize with what happened and can explain it away with an intellectual reason for what happened, everyone came and they all supported the film. And that’s because the community was ready for it, and no one it should be buried anymore, and I didn’t know that until recently. My standard answer to this question was always “I have no idea if this was the right thing or not. I’m not sure.” But I know I want you to be asking if it was the right or wrong thing.

I’ll point you to the moment when my voice comes in because Fernando can’t say the word “solidarity.” To me, that’s an amazing moment, partly because he’s never said that word before, but as importantly, you hear my Anglo voice correcting him, and hopefully that’s cringe worthy. You start to question things like, who is making this story and why? Especially since it's about a place that was a white-mans’ camp. Already Fernando is being objectified in a very specific way. And I think over the course of the film, you see the consequences of that and you see him break out of that.

How did you first wander into Bisbee, and how did you first hear about the Deportation? There are people who have lived there for years who didn’t know the story until the centennial came around.

RG: My mother-in-law is a historian and she bought a mining cabin in Bisbee to use as a family vacation spot. So in 2003, I went there to help my then-future wife work on stripping the paint off the floors and things like that to get this cabin to be hospitable, which is an act that a lot of people in Bisbee do. I fell in love with the town completely, I loved it so much, and I felt this presence that I’m talking about, these ghosts. And I’m not someone who believes in ghosts, but I am someone who believes in ghost in Bisbee.

On that first trip, I walked down to the Mining Historical Museum and I bought Robert Houston’s “Bisbee ’17,” which he wrote in the 1970s and is a fictional account of the Bisbee Deportation. That just blew my mind. It was 2003, so we were in the Bush years, and I was obsessed with all of these radical histories that no one was taught in school. And then to find out that this wasn’t taught in Bisbee schools was even more unsetting. My first idea was that we could re-enact this with the locals. I didn’t have any idea what that meant—this was many years before I made my first feature. Then the 100th anniversary was coming up, and it was finally time to make the film.

There’s this fascinating theme of memory vs. remembering how something was told to you. People think something is true because someone they trust told this version of the story. That’s how most of us learn a great deal in our lives. Were you looking to comment on that as well?

RG: Certainly. As you said, that’s how most of us learn our family histories, through what we were told. When I call something a mythology, I’m not just talking about the myth of the American West or the ideology of the American West; I’m talking about family mythology. What doest it mean to be a mining family in a company town? It’s 100 years later and people are still talking about this event that your family was a part of, and you have to reconcile with what that means. The tension that remains in town, with Sue Ray, is “My grandfather deported his own brother.” That tore her family apart. At the same time, she very much sympathizes with her grandfather and has probably grown up thinking “Our grandfather was right, despite how bad it is.” Her Uncle Archie was the one who had to be brought back into the family mythology. He wasn’t the outcast hero, but all you hear is the Rays talking about both sides. What doest it mean to have to process “both sides”? That’s a loaded term, post-Trump’s rant; it’s always been a loaded term. Then you see the brothers re-enact this, and you know in their hearts that they’re trying to reconcile this tension. Hopefully, that helps us understand how we can reconcile those tensions. When you see the town coming together in the end, that's a real coming together. It's a real moment of reconciliation. That comes from this need to deal with our own personal family mythologies.

The sweeping reconciliation that still needs to be dealt with—and I’m not sure it truly is in your film—is that this was largely a racially motivated event. That’s the toughest part for the residents to grapple with, and they sometimes maneuver around the topic when it comes up. Talk about how a lot of these people haven’t come to grips with that aspect of this event.

RG: I think they absolutely haven’t. When Dan Frey in the movie says “This was close to an ethnic cleansing,” that statement sent and continues to send shockwaves through the town. Who are our characters? Our characters are mostly white people and that is deliberate and on purpose and very much by design, because it’s never Mexican-Americans or black people that need to be told we need reconciliation. It’s never victims of things like this that need to be told that we’ve got to work for something like reparations. It’s always the white people that have to process that. Hopefully, that’s what you’re seeing in the film, the beginning stages of that, and I really do think it’s still the beginning stages.

A border town like Bisbee, the racial politics are much more complicated than they are in other places. This is a place where many people used to go across the border with no problem. This wall was built in their lifetimes to protect them, so to speak, but it’s made everyone’s lives demonstrably worse. At least most people would say that. Hopefully just saying the phrase “Bisbee was a white man’s camp” means something. Today, Bisbee is gentrified and there’s a real problem with class there—old Bisbee is white, older artist and the surrounding areas are all Mexicans. That’s a real issue that remains in town today. So “white man’s camp,” you can’t help but be chilled by that; it gets people thinking.

People got really into their re-enactment roles. Were there any surprising moments when you called “Action” at the level of anger, violence and emotion they gave you?

RG: The whole thing was surprising. When you look at the photographs of the deportation—and there are plenty—they are hauntingly and upsettingly serene. It seems like an orderly march out of town, and there were widespread reports of violence, so those photographs can only be taken for what they are—company photographs. The guy who took those photos was almost certainly hired by the company to document that. That’s not for sure, but that’s the general thinking.

So when we were going to re-create everything, that’s what my instinct was—re-create these photographs, and in that process, the haunting sadness of this will carry the day. And I called “Action,” and everyone goes at each other. That’s where that question of whether this was a good idea to do this or not really becomes a very present thing. We had people being thrown on the ground and coming up with bloody noses, and we had to stop action. There was one person with a bloody nose that I didn’t even put in the movie because I didn’t want that to be…that wasn’t on purpose and you don’t need to see that. It’s almost too weird because he’s also laughing because he had such a good time being thrown down on the ground.

I was shocked by that and by how much it came to life, how much people wanted to go at each other. That was where I thought that whatever we conjured was bigger than what we expected, and I was excited by that and fucking terrified by it, frankly. You really don’t know what’s going to spill out. You have to understand, people showed up that day with their own guns, their rifles, and they were dressed in roles they wanted to play that day. We used people as we thought was appropriate, so people were casting themselves, in a sense. That was unnerving. We had police officers checking to make sure the firearms weren’t loaded, and then we let people work these things out. I think it’s funny that one white kid, who had not been in town for a long time, says this was the “largest group therapy session.” I think what he was talking about was that physically, the town went at each other and came out of it hugging and saying “You were great. Good job” and patting each other on the back, which was very emotion and surprising.

During the actual loading the immigrants into the railcar sequence, at that point we’re in the re-enactment and you’re not cutting out of it much, but you do have that one guy who’s playing one of the deputized citizens, say out of character “This is a product of the times; we wouldn’t do this today,” and thank God somebody says that at that moment.

RG: Importantly, that guy is Doug Graham, who earlier in the movie introduces his father Dick Graham, who is the most sympathetic to the company in the whole film. Doug himself says “I was on the mining company’s side; the IWW was too much for the time.” So the fact that he goes through that process and comes out saying “My family was on one side, but you can’t justify that. That was then, this is now, and this is not a good thing to be doing.” That’s unbelievable. Doug is very intelligent, and he loves Bisbee so much, he loves the mine, he gave us the mining tour that you see a brief version of. So for him to have that recognition was really startling and important for all of us.

There are probably countless big and small places in America that could stand to go through this type of group therapy session about their history. This process feels like something you could do in other places, but the results might be very different. Were there any other places you considered doing this?

RG: Of course. I have a couple of ideas of other stories that could be told like this and other experiments that could be done like this. But for me, Bisbee is very close to my heart and it’s a place I love, so to be a part of this for the town is beyond meaningful. It is important that other towns can go through something like this, but I’m from the south originally, and the idea of me going even to my own town and say “Let’s re-enact this race war that I know happened in the ’70s,” I don’t know the intrinsic value in that. I don’t think that’s necessarily something valuable for me to do.

When he says “group therapy,” I love that line, but I’m not sure that’s how everyone feels. Some people could be triggered or traumatized by actually having to go through this. We haven’t experienced that first-hand, but you can’t help but leave open the possibility for it. I don’t know that group therapy is always the best thing; that’s not for me to say. But this is about Bisbee, a town that was absolutely ready—because of the nature of the town and its residents—to go through this process. I don’t think everybody is ready for it. And whose job is it to stir those things? But in way, that’s what’s happening in certain places now. The tearing down of statues in North Carolina, for example, and other places is absolutely a public reckoning with history. That is what that is. What we did in an artful way has real spiritual connection with what’s going on in a political protest way. The language might be different, but the end result is confronting the sins of the past; it’s the same thing. What are they doing other than confronting the mythologies of the past and trying to understand and destroy them? That’s what the battles of confederate statues are all about. At the same time, I definitely think that there are Chicago stories that I want to tell, and one that I’m thinking of specifically that I’d love to work on, but I won’t spill that yet.

One of the most haunting things about this film is that no one asks what happened to those 1200 people who were shipped off to the middle of New Mexico a hundred years ago. No one asks the question or volunteers the information; maybe nobody knows. It feels very deliberate on your part to leave that void.

RG: It certainly is. Mike Anderson in the film, he does say that his job on the centennial committee is to find out exactly what happened to them. So you see him going through some names. And that’s just a small glimpse of what his research is. Mike’s job was to find out as many of the stories as he could, and that process is ongoing, so you get a tiny glimpse of that in the film.

In terms of leaving it out of the narrative, it deliberate in a couple of senses. By the end of the film, it’s not about the deportees; it’s about the town in 2017 dealing with this collective trauma—it’s about processing really. Furthermore, they are the ghosts that haunt the film, period. Those ghosts can be talked about and glimpsed in passing, but they can't be glimpsed directly. Importantly, it’s the first question I hope every single person who watches this film asks when the credits roll: What happened to them? If that’s the question have, we’ve done at least part of our job.

You’ve been working this film on the festival circuit for the better part of nine months. Has that been the first question?

RG: Almost invariably. It’s almost always the first question, and I’m happy to point people to Mike’s research. The list has only existed for the past 10-15 years; our historical advisor who’s a professor from Georgetown, and most of what we know about the story comes from her work. She’s the one who compiled the list in the ’90s for the first time. So Mike had taken that work and gone forward with it, and he’s really uncovered some startling, amazing stories. 

Steven Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker & actor interviews under the name “Capone.”

BISBEE '17 opens Friday October 5th at the Music Box. CLICK HERE for Showtimes & Advance Tickets.