Bisbee ’17: Film, History, and Memory at the US-Mexico Border

AHA Session 126
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Rendezvous Trianon (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Rebecca Orozco, Cochise College
Elliott Young, Lewis and Clark College
Katherine A. Benton-Cohen, Georgetown University
Kenyon W. Zimmer, University of Texas at Arlington
Desiree J. Garcia, Dartmouth College

This discussion follows a screening of the film beginning at 1:30 p.m.

Session Abstract

A screening of the acclaimed Bisbee’17 (2018), with director Robert Greene, historical advisor Katherine Benton-Cohen, and contributors to a June 2019 AHR roundtable on the film. New York Times Critics’ Pick Bisbee’17 uses a re-telling of the so-called Bisbee Deportation of 1917. As film-industry website IMDB describes it, “An old mining town on the Arizona-Mexico border finally reckons with its darkest day: the deportation of 1200 immigrant miners exactly 100 years ago. Locals collaborate to stage recreations of their controversial past.”

The contributors to this roundtable contribute from different vantages: Kenyon Zimmer and Elliott Young are scholars of labor and the Mexico-U.S. borderlands; Desirée Garcia is a scholar of film and media studies; Katherine Benton-Cohen was the film’s principal academic advisor; and Rebecca Orozco is a historian of Bisbee who grew up in the region and participated in the planning for the centennial commemoration. They all share the view that Bisbee ’17 is generative as a genre. As with The Act of Killing (2013), in which director Joshua Oppenheimer filmed perpetrators of mass political violence in 1960s Indonesia as they staged and acted out some of their crimes for the camera, the reenactment of the deportation at quotidian sites like the town school and the ballpark allows viewers to experience the intimacy of this labor violence in a powerful way. “Putting oneself in the position of a participant,” notes Orozco, “brought the story home in a way our discussions could never have done.”

The participants offer more diverse perspectives on other aspects of the film. Garcia, for example, lauds not just the structure but also the frequent long framing of characters in Bisbee ’17 as powerful tools for leading audiences to “grapple with the relationship between individual and space, character and setting.” Young concludes that “the reenactment of this past trauma” allowed participants “to experience the present differently and create the possibility for a different future.” Benton-Cohen and director Robert Greene describe the process of collaboration, discussing both narrative form and the complicated practical and ethical questions of whether and how outside experts should be compensated. While she argues that “there is good reason to distrust the authoritative narrator” of conventional historical films, Zimmer’s critique of the film’s portrayal of the IWW as a recently arrived force removed from the experiences and daily lives of Bisbee’s workers serves as an implicit reminder that even iconoclastic works like Bisbee ’17 are arguments about historical causation. Successful experiments with genre do not escape the demands of history as a discipline, but rather serve as reminders of the many ways in which those demands can be met.

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