What a year 2018 has been for documentaries. Films like RBG, Three Identical Strangers and Won't You Be My Neighbor? found rapt audiences at the theater. Now Bisbee ’17 arrives and this time the topic feels more local as its focus deals with an event in the small Arizona city’s history that led to over 1,300 striking miners and sympathizers being rounded up and shipped out of town. What helps make Bisbee ’17 more fascinating than more common documentaries comes from how the story unfolds. The people of current-day Bisbee play a big part in the story.
In 1917, the copper mining business ruled in Bisbee, with the Phelps-Dodge company in charge of the town. When the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, roll into town and encourage the mine workers to strike for better pay and safer working conditions, the Phelps-Dodge executives won’t stand for it and, with help from law enforcement, an ugly chapter in Bisbee history plays out on July 12, 1917.
The movie takes that story and finds a way to have it unfold through interviews with current Bisbee citizens as they plan for a centennial recreation of the events that day. Watching a young man, Fernando Serrano, discover the ugly history of his hometown while choosing to play one of the striking miners offers some moving layers to the story. Or learning that in 1917 one brother became the deputy who willingly loaded his own brother, a striking miner, onto a cattle car that would take the brother from town. Seeing two brothers today play these roles demonstrates the seriousness of what happened in the community of 1917 Bisbee.
Director Robert Greene, who made the documentaries Actress and Kate Plays Christine, uses some unusual techniques. He lets us know a film crew is involved in making this. At the beginning, a man stands in front of Bisbee High School waiting for his cue to start, but he must tell a passerby to get out of the picture, as he points toward the camera. This seems awkward at first, but by the end of the film the techniques Greene employs make the movie more exciting and engaging.
Bisbee ’17 brings another great documentary to the movie screens. Seeing the people of Bisbee drill into their town’s history helps us learn about Arizona in a new way and makes this film one you want to see.