The Past Isn’t Past

Robert Greene’s haunting Bisbee ’17 finds America in a showdown with itself


“If we just relive it again, it’s gonna keep happening,” someone says during Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 as a way of asking if restaging a 100-year-old crime against humanity is such a great idea. The event in question occurred on July 12, 1917, not long after the U.S. had entered World War I. A strike among mine workers in the wealthy town of Bisbee, Arizona — once known as the “Queen of the Copper Camps” — was put down savagely by authorities. Around 2,000 townspeople were deputized to round up roughly 1,200 strikers (and fellow residents), transport them into the New Mexico desert, and leave them to die. The vast majority of the strikers were immigrants; Bisbee is situated just a few miles north of the Mexican border. Last year, to commemorate the anniversary of what is now known as the “Bisbee Deportation,” the town re-enacted the events, with citizens divided into strikers and deputies, victims and perpetrators.

It’s a staggeringly ambitious way to confront the sins of history, turning Bisbee ’17 into, among other things, a ghost story. And Greene’s stylistic choices reflect the imposition of narrative and symbolism onto a real-life tale, as if the ghosts were trying to seize the movie. The film’s lush widescreen vistas and impeccably lit interiors clash with, and inform, its interviews and more intimate moments. The director purposefully pulls us this way and that, weaving cinematic spells and then yanking us out of them; as viewers, we are both inside and outside the story.

Some may complain that the dredging up of shameful historical memories serves not as an exorcism but as a conjuring. Why not leave the past buried, forgotten, where it can do no further harm? But it could also be argued that such memories and sins never actually went away in the first place, and need to be confronted. “Cities that are haunted…seem to straddle past and present, as though two versions of the city are overlaid on top of each other,” a quote from Colin Dickey’s Ghostland tells us in the film’s opening. (The statement has the ring of truth whether you’re talking about a mining town in Arizona or New York City.) Desperately poor ever since the mines closed decades ago, the town of Bisbee today is filled with tales of hauntings; indeed, ghost stories and tours are reportedly a key source of tourism.

The re-enactment and its subsequent cinematic portrayal were both the brainchild of Greene himself, and they mark the latest chapter in the career of a documentarian whose work keeps finding new ways to probe the gray area between authenticity and performance. In 2014’s Actress, Greene documented the daily life of Brandy Burre, a cast member of The Wire who had stepped away from acting to start a family in Beacon, New York. During the film, Burre attempts to restart her career, but as Greene’s camera follows her into intimate corners of her life, we realize that the roles of mother and partner are also parts Burre is playing.

That’s not to say she’s living a lie: Through Greene’s framing, Actress suggests that all life is essentially a series of roles that we perform to varying degrees. It may be the greatest documentary of the past decade because even as it presents an almost novelistically complex portrait of one woman’s turbulent life, it manages to interrogate not just the idea of documentary filmmaking, but the very nature of reality itself.

Greene took this type of formal experimentation even further with his next film, Kate Plays Christine (2016), which follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to portray Sarasota broadcast journalist Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself on camera in 1974. The conceptual twist is that there is no actual narrative film being made about Chubbuck. (Well, that’s not quite accurate; there was a film being made around the same time, starring Rebecca Hall and directed by Antonio Campos, but it had nothing to do with Greene and Sheil’s project.) You could say that Sheil is preparing for a role that doesn’t exist. You could also say that her preparation for the role is the role itself: The main character of the movie is essentially the liminal figure of Kate becoming Christine.

Or perhaps failing to. By trying to inhabit the mind of a woman who had killed herself to protest the increasingly sensationalist nature of the media industry around her, Sheil becomes an unpredictable, at times even destructive force. Kate Plays Christine’s controversial ending, in which an attempt to re-create Chubbuck’s final moments repeatedly goes haywire in a variety of ways — some seemingly planned by the filmmakers, others perhaps more spontaneous — makes a lot more sense if one looks at it as the movie consciously self-destructing, in a formally daring spiritual echo of its subject’s suicide.

Greene’s profile has risen substantially with these three most recent films, but one can find this kind of exploration in his earlier features as well. In 2011’s Fake It So Real, he follows a colorful and odd group of small-time wrestlers who stage matches for a few bucks a pop in tiny venues like school auditoriums and church basements. In his debut feature, 2010’s Kati With an I, he follows his vibrant, independent-minded 18-year-old half-sister around during a pivotal three days in her life, right before she graduates from high school and prepares to leave small-town Alabama to move back in with her parents in North Carolina. At various points, Kati finds herself playing the role of wise adult, girlfriend, daughter, ringleader, dreamer, and cynic. As we count down to graduation, the question of whether her not-entirely-reliable boyfriend will follow Kati up to North Carolina continues to hang in the air. This girl has got plans, and yet nothing in her life seems in any way settled or certain. The movie is radiant, ever-changing, impossible to pin down, just like its subject.

Which brings us to another distinguishing factor of Bisbee ’17. In the past, Greene’s work has tended to focus on individuals undergoing transformations. This time, however, his approach seems more diffuse: A wide variety of faces and types come before his cameras — a small army of people researching, reflecting on and inhabiting figures from the past. While there are a few individuals who stand out among the crowd, what we sense more than anything is a gathering communal consciousness. Just as Brandy played Brandy in Actress and Kate played Christine, Bisbee 2017 plays Bisbee 1917 — with all the uncertainty and tenuousness that implies.

But there’s more to it than that. Greene’s film obviously has some urgency in our current moment, as a humanitarian crisis gathers along our border. Thousands of children have been detained and separated from their parents. A nation is being cynically and opportunistically divided around the politics of immigration. And let’s not forget about the politics of work, the politics of who owns, who toils, and who dies: The labor movement is under fire once again from the reactionary forces of runaway profit in collusion with a vengeful government. And so we must confront the fact that the true protagonist of Bisbee ’17 is America as it plays itself, zigzagging in the treacherous and disputed frontier between past and present, fracture and community, victim and perpetrator, truth and lies.

Bisbee ’17
Written, directed, and edited by Robert Greene
4th Row Films
Opens September 5, Film Forum