by Josh Cabrita
Dir. Robert Greene, U.S., 4TH Row Films
French archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan advocated for a precise, nimble, and diagrammatic approach to mapping the multiple levels of labor that encircle a single artifact. In his chaîne opératoire (“operational sequence”), a way of representing production flows that supersede any individual worker, the points of contact between laborer and raw material are viewed as parts of a larger network of interactions. We’re no longer concerned solely with the visible act of digging or refining—there are other peripheral considerations as well, such as the cultivation of food required to nurture the workers, the construction of homes to shelter them, and the development of tools that enable their daily tasks. This dense web of relations, spanning miles in space and years in time, brings us to a better understanding of the invisible, mostly abstract, and yet remarkably prescient forces that remain implicit in the objects and machines we continually interact with. If sites of production double as sites of memory, then entire histories of exploitation continue to be sublimated in the landscapes, minds, and bodies that were once, and continue to be, affected by these overlapping systems.
Leroi-Gourhan’s concept could apply to Bisbee ’17, Robert Greene’s hybrid documentary about the haunted history of the eponymous Arizona bordertown, and to its outlook on memory, the past, and how we go about remaking one in the image of the other. On a certain level, Bisbee ’17 is about modeling and putting into practice an alternative form of historical analysis based on this principle and its potential applications in cinema. Greene begins his film with an official account of the 1917 Bisbee Deportation, presented in an opening crawl with the “objective” tone of a textbook. “On July 12, 1917, a posse of two thousand men, led by Sheriff Harry Wheeler, rounded up the strikers at gunpoint, threw them onto cattle cars, and shipped them to the barren desert of New Mexico, leaving them to die.” With copper production ramping up to supply the ongoing demand of war efforts in Germany, the deportation was deemed a patriotic duty by the town’s primary stakeholder, Phelps Dodge, the company that owned the Copper Queen Mine and orchestrated the counter-offensive against the IWW (International Workers of the World) in Bisbee. Two months before the deportation, the union sent Dodge a list of demands, including a policy against blasting while men were working in the mine, a memorandum on the fluctuating wage system, and an immediate end to the discrimination against union members. All were subsequently denied.
As we transition into the present, the film makes it clear that history, so often associated with the written word, is far more dynamic, plastic, and unfixed than the epigraph would have us believe. One hundred years to the day, Greene and his crew document a commemorative reenactment of the deportation. The organizers and players mostly fall into two groups: those related to the miners, strikers, or bystanders violently evicted from their homes; and the many who still voice their support for the perpetrators, men deputized by the sheriff to round up and shuffle out persons perceived as posing a socialist threat to the sanctity and “safety” of the town. Fernando Serrano is one of the exceptions. A young queer man, the son of an immigrant from Mexico, and a student at the town’s university who had never heard of the deportation, he explores his role as a radicalized minor and undergoes a political transformation over the course of the film that puts him in closer proximity to the deceased man he’s representing.
As with Greene’s previous feature, Kate Plays Christine, the historical artifacts on which to base these performances are decidedly few. Just as Kate had no access to footage of Christine Chubbuck—the Channel 40 news anchor who committed suicide during the evening news—while preparing to play her, the residents of Bisbee must invent backstories, postulate connections between their roles and themselves, and develop entirely new countenances with no objective reference points. Fabulation, the act of filling in the details long since erased from history, is a necessary aspect of the reenactment. We see these gaps everywhere: in the dearth of photographic documentation of the displaced miners; in the lack of primary sources attesting to the event itself (obscured by the corrupt judiciary and company-owned press of the day); and in the seemingly cosmopolitan culture of Bisbee, a mostly left-leaning town with a university, a flourishing arts community, and even a Pride Parade.
A month before the deportation in Bisbee, miles away in Butte, Montana, another labor war was being waged. The players may be different but the story is essentially the same: the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, sitting atop one of the most lucrative claims of copper in the country, neglected to improve working conditions that were as dangerous as the trenches in Europe, if not more so. Through indirect or unreliable sources such as newspaper reportage, contemporary mining songs, and IWW paraphernalia and posters, Travis Wilkerson reconstructs this story in An Injury to One (2002) as clearly as possible, using didactic language and unconventional means of documentation to demonstrate the inherent impossibility of creating a counter-history. Where the directness of Wilkerson’s words belie their inability to properly recreate the events told, Greene’s images of the town, its architecture, and landscape index a similar absence. Acutely felt in the all but abandoned secondary school, the abyssal pit where Copper Queen Mine once operated, and the mine shafts where so many laborers lost their lives, the history of these spaces remains implicit in their current loss of function. Used up and tossed away, they point back to a system that feeds on surplus capital. The wreckage remains visible, the profits shipped off to an offscreen Elsewhere.
The contemporary resonances that resound between the two timelines in Bisbee ’17 are thus more than figurative. This is not an allegory, a metaphor, or a fable making use of whatever parallels we may see between 1917 and 2017. It’s an operational sequence that draws multiple intersections between the production of copper in yesteryears, the First World War, the deportation of mostly immigrant miners in Bisbee and ongoing debates over border security, labor rights, and land claims. In blurring the distinction between documentary and fiction, Greene has more subtly done away with another binary: the contested past and our troubled present, and the illusory distance between the two.