Bisbee ’17 tells the story of a labor strike that took place in 1917 in the border town of Bisbee, Arizona, against the copper company Phelps Dodge. As a result, thirteen hundred citizens were dragged away by strikebreakers and dumped in the desert. Former N.C. State film student turned successful filmmaker Robert Greene’s movie takes the form of a historical reenactment, with modern-day Bisbee citizens both telling the audience the story and recreating moments of it, while also acknowledging the cameras. Bisbee ’17 has received great reviews, currently sporting a 95 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a film, a film-within-a-film, and a commentary on filmmaking, among many other things, and we recently spoke with Greene in depth about all of them.  

Greene will be in attendance for a Q and A after an 8:00 p.m. screening at Alamo Drafthouse tomorrow, October 12, which follows a free screening for N.C. State students and staff and a colloquium that morning.

INDY: Bisbee ‘17 encompasses a variety of formats and genres. I’m guessing it took a lot to put it all together.

ROBERT GREENE: Yeah, it was. It’s my sixth feature film, and my last one, Kate Plays Christine, pushed the form pretty far in terms of the intersection of documentary and performance, which I’ve been working toward my whole career. This is like trying to take that basic idea of making people think about their own history, their own story, and the ghosts of their home in Bisbee, Arizona, and use different methods and genres, including the Western and musicals, to get at some buried truth.

Like you, I’m a veteran of the N.C. State film program, and I had as a professor, Joe Gomez, who was a huge proponent of Peter Watkins [a British filmmaker whose work combines fictional scenarios and a faux-documentary format]. I was wondering if that influenced your work.

Joe Gomez is someone I would consider to still be my mentor and someone who changed my life at N.C. State for many reasons, not least of which is introducing me to the films of Peter Watkins. What Watkins’s films do is not just blurring boundaries between fiction and nonfiction but trying to get at something more real than real. And his methods for doing that are mixing real people and highly constructed situations to try to lodge something loose that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. My favorite movie remains his masterpiece Edvard Munch.

We watched that one! It was his own print, because it wasn’t on video at that time.

At one point, Joe had the only 16mm print in the United States. It’s finally on DVD now, but Joe was showing those films when no one else was. Watkins’s La Commune was another big influence, where you watch reenactors recreate something historic, but in the present day they’re reenacting those feelings the people they’re portraying felt. There’s a lot of that in Bisbee.

You and Watkins both seem to use a reckoning with the past to comment on the present while presenting it as something that’s obviously a performance within a structured storyline.

Yeah. For us, it’s important that the “17” in Bisbee ’17 is very much 2017. How do you tell a story about the past, but it resonates in the present? What the story’s about is how the people in town today are working through this past and this story, even as we’re telling it. Because this is what we need to be doing culturally. The deliberate performative aspect of it is meant to give it a frame, so you can see people processing this.

Right now, especially in the South, with people tearing down statues, for example, we’re processing our past pathologies in a very direct way. We’re trying to confront things we’ve taken for granted as the “unacknowledged scripts of the world,” to quote Joshua Oppenheimer of The Act of Killing. Some of the unacknowledged scripts of America are the myths of the Western and of good guys and bad guys. In this case, the good guys were the sheriff and the mining company, who were rounding up striking workers, many of them immigrants. They had been radicalized by the Industrial Workers of the World, the most radical union that’s ever existed in this country, and they were painted as anti-American traitors. How do you animate that without just making someone nod their head, go, “That’s too bad,” and move on with their day? For us, the movie takes place in the present.

There’s a lot of examining the “unwritten scripts” of self-mythologizing in America lately.

I feel like we elected Obama and thought we were post-history, that we’d moved on from history, and then Trump gets elected, and it’s a white supremacist, anti-woman, anti-immigrant platform, and that idea, “Make America Great Again,” speaks to a time that was even more racist, sexist, isolationist, and patriarchal than today. We’re being confronted by this guy who’s empowered this retrograde way of thinking, and that’s why I think it’s so urgent to collapse the past and the present in our work. It’s happening right now, as the cliché goes. To make a film about a mass deportation in America in 2017, there couldn’t be a more urgent time. The images we found still haunt me, and I think they haunt a lot of people who worked on the film.

How did you find the story, and what were some of the challenges of bringing the production together?

I started going to Bisbee in 2003, a few years after I graduated N.C. State.  My future mother-in-law bought a house that my future wife was working on, an old mining cabin. I went there to help her clean the house, and I fell in love with the town, and immediately learned about the deportation. So I kind of loved the place and hated it at the same time.

It was a few years before I did my first film, but I had this idea about reenacting the deportation with the locals, and had no idea how to do that. I’m not a huge fan of reenactment by itself in documentary. I thought about this for years, and the anniversary of the deportation was coming. This was the time. It was a buried story, something that was never talked about in town.

We took five trips to Bisbee, where we shot material and raised money, and then we moved to town last year. The anniversary was July 12, so we shot through the anniversary and into late July. I have a great team of producers that I’ve worked with forever, Douglas Tirola, Susan Bedusa, and Bennett Elliott, and they had to basically produce a fiction film and a documentary simultaneously. We had to stage things like a fiction film, but I needed to cast the film according to individual stories. None of the recreations matter if you don’t already care about the people doing the recreation. So it was a tricky dance of setting up everything you needed for a fiction scene—costumes, location, scripting—while finding characters in a journalistic, documentary way that made sense.

There’s something intriguing about combining a tight structure with the off-the-cuff style of a documentary.

I think all documentaries are in some way structured. You have a plan, you have things you’re looking for in interviews, but you’re hoping to find something magic. We knew we were building towards this large-scale recreation of the deportation, but what would actually happen was something we couldn’t predict. That’s what Peter Watkins does. He creates these scenarios, then lets life kind of infuse them in various ways. That’s exciting to me. When you’re watching people recreate the event itself, they’re taking it in the direction they want to take it. So it winds up being highly collaborative, and why I cling to the idea that we’re making nonfiction.

The film played at Full Frame earlier this year. There’s really a stretching of the preconceptions of what constitutes of a documentary.

And those preconceptions are fairly recent. The first movies were really documentaries, these staged looks at reality. I sort of reject the idea this is new in any way. But that’s what became popular in documentaries from the eighties on up, the documentaries that reduced their artifice as opposed to playing it up. Things like Roger & Me were criticized for editing events out of chronological order, and then Roger Ebert pointed out, “These things are not in order, but they’re still things that happened.”

In recent times, I think filmmakers are liberated to try new things, and the dogmas of the past are not taken so seriously. We’re finding inspiration in things like the New Journalism of the sixties and seventies to find truth. We live in a fantasy culture, so if you’re going to make a documentary about America, if you’re going to try to make something truthful about America, it needs to be about fantasy. How do you make films about fantasies, except to project your own fantasies? I think it’s an exciting time because of how elastic the form is.

I understand the Q and A at the Alamo screening is going to include some labor and union people.

The film’s a labor film. It’s about how mining companies conspired with the sheriff of the county to break the back of labor in Arizona, and Arizona is now a right-to-work state. We live in a country where labor unions are under attack. So part of the challenge was how to tell a labor story in a world where “union” is considered by many to be a bad word. In the film, many of the songs you hear are Industrial Workers of the World songs turned into these kind of dirges. I can talk all day about form and filmmaking, but for me, the film is very much about an event that took place one hundred years ago and can resonate with anyone who considers themselves activists today.