Like more than a few documentaries — even though it is unlike perhaps any documentary you’ve seen recently — “Bisbee ’17” features a dramatic reenactment. The events being depicted occurred July 12, 1917, at the height of a bitter labor dispute that pitted mining companies against their workers in the copper-rich town of Bisbee, Ariz. A sheriff and his 2,000-strong posse rounded up around 1,200 striking miners and their supporters at gunpoint, forced them into railway cars and abandoned them 200 miles away in New Mexico, warning them they would be killed if they ever dared return to Bisbee.
The reenactment, planned to commemorate the centennial of what became known as the Bisbee Deportation, is impressive in its scale and sweep, and in the passionate commitment of its participants. Even with the distance of time and the safety net of a collaborative undertaking, it is sobering to see a tragedy restaged in such meticulous detail. (When it’s over, the actors exchange friendly chuckles and back pats with a palpable sense of relief.)
But the quality of the production is largely beside the point. Robert Greene, the director of this remarkable new documentary, may be fascinated by the historical pageantry, but he doesn’t want us to get passively swept up in what we’re seeing. He has spent much of his career blurring the lines between filmed performance and lived experience, something he did to artful, brainteasing effect in “Actress” (2014) and “Kate Plays Christine” (2016), both portraits of professional performers testing the limits of an especially challenging role.
Although the scope of his investigation is broader in “Bisbee ’17,” the director once again opens an eerie, liminal space between reality and its representation, in which minds as curious as his own are free to wander. He turns a reconstruction into a deconstruction, inviting participants and viewers alike to feel the tension of uncertainty, the weight of the past bearing down on the present. By the time we see the men and women of Bisbee stepping into their assigned roles — marching or being marched grimly through the streets in period garb, shouting angrily at each other through the slats of a boxcar — we have gotten to know several of them and heard their thoughts about the tragedy that has marred their town’s legacy.
It should come as little surprise that those thoughts are often complicated ones. Some residents, whose families have lived in Bisbee for generations, echo the rationale once trotted out by the mining companies, offering a sad reminder that history is written by the victors. Those who enforced the deportation at the time said they were preempting an inevitable bloodbath, and accused the Industrial Workers of the World (which organized the strike) of fronting for terrorism, anarchy and obstruction: The U.S. had just entered World War I, after all, and copper was essential to the effort.
For all its teasing intellectual layers, “Bisbee ’17” is fairly unambiguous about where it stands. Its most persuasive arguments frame the conflict as a case of human rights being devoured by an unholy maw of rapacious capitalism and undisguised xenophobia. One interviewee suggests that the deported strikers, many of whom were of Mexican and Eastern European descent, were victims of an ethnic cleansing. Among the deportees’ strongest sympathizers is a local artist, Laurie McKenna, who is shown working tirelessly on an installation to honor them. Others are more conflicted, among them the descendants of Edward Leslie Cook, who found himself in the extraordinary position of arresting and deporting his own brother, Archie.
The most moving arc belongs to a young man named Fernando Serrano, whom we see trying to reconcile his role in the reenactment — he plays a striking miner — with his own experience of having seen his mother deported to Mexico when he was 7. Greene doesn’t milk Serrano’s story for tears, though if he did, you suspect he would immediately and explicitly implicate himself for doing just that. The director never wants you to forget that you’re watching a movie, an intellectual and aesthetic construct whose fastidious design — from the dissonant strings of Keegan DeWitt’s score to the eerie, deliberate framing of Jarred Alterman’s cinematography — always keeps the viewer slightly off-balance.
Greene frames his subjects with sly formal detachment, often keeping them at a visual distance and letting the camera run for several moments before or after someone has spoken. Elsewhere, when he’s in an even more form-busting mood, he embraces the theatrical possibilities of the pageant itself, filming his subjects as they perform musical numbers drawn from the historical material.
If that makes “Bisbee ’17” sound like a curious, hyper-alliterative fusion of Bertolt Brecht and Busby Berkeley, its experimentation never feels forced or alienating. On the contrary, one of the pleasurable discoveries of this continually surprising movie is that artifice can be the most direct route to the truth. That’s especially the case here, perhaps, given that the issues raised remain as urgent and upsetting in the present as they were 100 years ago. The lesson of “Bisbee ’17,” signaled by that sly apostrophe in its title, is that the past is never really past. Greene has made a hard movie to argue with, even as he invites you to do exactly that.
(In English, Spanish dialogue with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena, and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica