“I want you to think about how we tell stories”: 5 Questions with Robert Greene, director of “Bisbee ‘17”

A lyrical and haunting journey through America’s past and present, Bisbee ’17 revisits the infamous Bisbee Deportation of 1917, during which 1,200 striking miners in this small Arizona town were violently removed from their homes and transported in freight cars to the middle of the desert. But this is no conventional investigation into the history of corporate labor or immigration issues. Boundary-breaking filmmaker Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine) combines interviews with current residents of Bisbee with staged reenactments, performed by the locals. Anchored by the story of one young Hispanic resident, who experiences his own emotional and political awakening, Bisbee ‘17 “offers a passionately ambitious, patiently empathetic mapping of modern times” (The New Yorker). Hailed already as “among the best documentaries you’ll see this year” (RogerEbert.com), critics are raving that Bisbee ’17 “confirms that director Robert Greene is one of America’s finest new voices in nonfiction” (Variety). DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Greene about the fine lines between exploitation and empathy, reality and reenactment.

How long ago did you start to think about taking on the story of Bisbee? Because some of the films questions, particularly about immigrants, obviously resonates in a major way with current political landscape?

Robert Greene: I came first to Bisbee in 2003, because my mother-in-law bought a house in town. And I fell in love with the place, and I remember we went to the local museum, and discovered this book “Bisbee ’17,” which was a fictionalization about the deportation. I thought we have to make a film about Bisbee and maybe I can recreate the deportation with the locals. At the time, I didn’t have any clue what that meant. And the idea percolated for years. This was well before I made my first feature. Finally, when “Kate Plays Christine” was released, I realized it was the 100th anniversary and called my producer and said now’s the time to do this. We finished shooting in October 2017, and obviously, a month later, Trump was elected, and the volume on everything was turned up. But what I was most interested initially was in bringing out the labor history and this hidden radical labor history of the U.S. That was the first inclination, but the ‘17 was always meant to be a metaphor for 2017. But immediately, with the travel ban and families being destroyed, the metaphors become so much for potent and frightening.

For me, I don’t know if the film would have worked without Fernando Serrano. At what point in the process did you realize that his story would form a kind of spine for the film?

I think he is the main character. He embodies so many of the tensions in the town: He’s Latin American, he moved from Mexico, and lived in Bisbee and grew up with two nations in his heart. He has his own relationship with the word deportation. He started working through these things through the process of the film. We didn’t know where it was taking us. It’s all so fresh. This was deeply affecting for him, and he really went through a transformation on screen. And that’s not directed. In my films, there’s oftentimes a mix of performance and not. But we let him take the character where he wanted to go with it.

I think it’s important for this film to discuss your relationship with these people. I think with your films there’s always a fine line between exploitation and empathy, which I think is a fascinating place to be, but how do you respond to that?

I think that’s the question at the heart of all documentaries. I think what my films are trying to do is explore those tough questions, because there’s a sincerity about most documentaries, and that’s all about putting forth empathy. But in order to get there you have to exploit. And few people want to talk about that. And some of the greatest films are literally about that, such as “Chronicles of a Summer” and “The Act of Killing.” There’s a beautiful duality in empathy and exploitation, because it embodies what documentaries are. What I want to do is take those buried things which most documentaries are trying to erase, such as everything that’s outside the frame and how did the camera get into that room, and put those tensions on screen and explore it. I don’t know how to make films that don’t include those questions. Every documentary filmmaker will tell you: It’s a very uncomfortable thing when someone else’s pain is giving you good material. But we don’t often talk about that.

How much of the recreations were formed with the input of the subjects? For instance, I loved that musical number, which seemed to be the idea of one of the guys, right?

One of the ideas of all those reenactments is they are written together with the people in town, to varying degrees. One of the residents, Brett Hanson, had written parts of a musical that he wanted to perform, commemorating the deportation, but he was worried that it might be seen as making light of it. We were documenting the process of how he was coming to terms with it, so we asked him to adapt the song to that scene. He’s an attorney in town, and he loves acting. So the reenactments and the scenes we were creating were collaborative.

It’s a stunningly visual film. Why was this lyrical aesthetic important to tell this story?

The movie is trying to represent and to find images that visually evoke what it’s like to be in that place. When you’re in the place, you feel like you’re in “There Will Be Blood” or “Twin Peaks.” You feel like you’re in town with ghosts, and with these cheesy reenactors roaming around. And It looks like a Western set. The whole town is a stage. And people very much identify with themselves as playing a part in Bisbee. People talk about the past as if it’s everyone’s story. There’s a self-referential thinking that goes into being in Bisbee. So the Western genre look isn’t conjured for no reason. It’s about the way these two sides tell stories. So there’s a genre reference to the images because I want you to think about how we tell stories. Westerns are always about hidden American ideologies that we can continue to recreate. So shooting in that way was also about getting the viewer to think about how images are made and how we think through them.

Paula Froehle