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True/False Conversations - Past and Present Collide in 'Bisbee '17'


This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year's True/False Film Fest.


In Bisbee ‘17, director Robert Greene examines the past’s influence on the present in Bisbee, Arizona, a town seven miles from Mexico. During the early 1900s, Bisbee was home to an influential copper mining camp. In 1917, union workers, largely immigrants, went on strike, and as a result, 1,200 workers were rounded up at gunpoint and were deported across state lines. Greene said he wanted to “rattle the ghost’s cage” to see how an event that took place a century ago is still affecting the town.




Greene lives in Columbia and works for the Missouri School of Journalism.

Ivory-Ganja: Can you tell me a little bit about what happened in Bisbee?

Greene: So Bisbee is a town that was the queen of the copper camps. It was one of the most important copper mining centres in America and even the world. And over the course of maybe 100 years or so, the mines were open and immigrants from all over the world would pour in from other mining places around the world to work in the mines of Bisbee. It was like this thriving place basically and then the mines closed in 1975.


But 100 years ago in 1917, 1,200 striking miners most of them immigrants were who had been radicalized by the Industrial Workers of the World, which was the most radical union in the history of this country and maybe one of the most radical unions in the history of the world, came to town and basically said you know you've got to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. And this was a place that was known as a white man's camp so they also wanted to fight for racial equality and like Mexican workers couldn't work below ground which means they could make as much money, things like that. So the mining company conspired with the local sheriff  to round up the striking miners by gunpoint.  2,000 were rounded up. 1,200 of them were shipped out of town on cattle cars and dropped in the middle of the desert of New Mexico and just left there.


That became known as the Bisbee deportation. And what the film does is tell that story but tell it through recreating it by collaborating with locals to inhabit the characters on either side of the debate and then recreate the deportation itself.


Ivory-Ganja: I want to talk about the re-enactment because one of the people who participated in the re-enactment, at the end of it, he said it's kind of like the biggest group therapy session ever. So talk a little bit about that.

Greene: We consider them sort of like interventions with reality or something because we've collaborated with the folks in town to create these these sort of staged interventions. The idea was really that we would find people in town who had a connection to the story, or people who didn't have a connection with the story but had a connection with the place, and use these interventions use these reenactments to rattle the ghost’s cage a little bit and see what comes out. A lot of times what actually is happening is people are really inserting their own personal dramas into this other drama, which they've turned into their own stories. In a way the film is about the nature of storytelling. The last three of my films have been about sort of staging these fantasies that are inside of us. This was a way to do that. This was a way to get at sort of the way we fantasize about history and the way we mythologize stories from our past. When you open that up, when you when you shake that snowglobe, other things emerge.