William Faulkner once wrote: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” That line could be the motto of a small Arizona town, seven miles from the Mexico border, called Bisbee. Once a thriving commercial hub during a copper-mining boom more than a hundred years ago, the speck on the map in Robert Greene’s experimental new film, Bisbee ’17, is now more or less a modern-day ghost town – and there’s no shortage of ghosts to reckon with.
Here are the facts: In July of 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, the sheriff of Bisbee rounded up more than 1,000 people believed to be pro-union activists, forced them into pen-like boxcars, and shipped them out of town into the New Mexico desert, where they were left for dead. This ugly chapter still haunts the town. It’s like Bisbee’s original sin. Not everyone who lives there a hundred years after the incident feels this way, but enough do to want to finally wrestle with the past by staging a recreation of the incident as a sort of civic group-therapy session.
Greene, the director of such playfully unconventional art house meta-movies as 2014’s Actress and 2016’s Kate Plays Christine, was on hand for that street-theater exorcism and he’s woven it into a wildly creative (and maddeningly discursive) document with moments that hit you in the gut and others that, quite honestly, feel like outtakes from Waiting for Guffman. I have no doubt that the residents of Bisbee got catharsis from their re-enactment of this sad historical event, but for the rest of us, it’s an exorcism that’s more told than felt – even if its parallels to current-day border detentions and the like give the film with an extra layer of resonance. There’s no denying that Bisbee ’17 has some moments of deep elegiac power or, for that matter, that Greene’s ambition is boundless. But by the end, I often felt like his blurring of the past and the present was an experiment that was easier to admire than be swept up by. B