‘Bisbee ’17’
‘Bisbee ’17’

Bisbee, Arizona seems like a pretty nice place. Nestled in the mountains near the state’s border with Mexico, this cozy burg features an attractive turn-of-the-20thcentury downtown, vintage clothing stores, a thriving arts community, and even its own annual Pride celebration.

Of course, there’s more to Bisbee then meets the eye, and Robert Greene’s unusual documentary Bisbee ’17 (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, September 28) explores and brings to life this sleepy backwater’s hidden and embarrassing past. Bisbee wasn’t always the bucolic, open-minded place it appears to be now; one hundred years ago, it witnessed a crackdown on organized labor that resulted in one of the most egregious (and extralegal) human rights violations of American history.

In 1917, Bisbee was the copper capital of the United States, its mines providing raw materials for the then-nascent war effort. Ninety percent of the town’s miners were immigrants representing over thirty countries; their employer, the Phelps-Dodge Corporation, was more than happy to take advantage of their foreign employees by paying them starvation wages.

That didn’t sit well with the Industrial Workers of the World (better known, of course, as the Wobblies), who dispatched organizers to Bisbee to radicalize the miners and bring them out on strike. And that, of course, greatly displeased Phelps-Dodge, which responded by rounding up everyone who refused to cross the picket line to work and sent them – all 1,000-plus – in rail cars to the middle of the New Mexico desert with the understanding that, if they ever returned to Bisbee, they’d be killed on sight.

Once it was over, the remaining residents of Bisbee promptly tried to forget about what they’d done to their former neighbors. Greene’s film examines the town’s largely suppressed (but certainly not forgotten) historical memory of the event and climaxes with a centenary recreation of The Great Deportation.

Interviewing numerous townsfolk – the same people also seen participating in the recreation – it quickly becomes clear that laying the ghost won’t be terribly easy. Tears are shed, battle lines drawn, and long separated siblings reunited in a local cemetery –and of course, contemporary politics continue to inform peoples’ feelings about what happened on July 12, 1917.

It would have been interesting to learn what happened to the miners abandoned in the desert – did any of them manage to slink home, did they die of exposure, or did they move on and begin new lives elsewhere? – but this is a minor complaint regarding this otherwise beautifully and sensitively made film, which features a tracking shot that would make Godard or Tarkovsky proud.

Joan Jett in ‘Bad Reputation’
Joan Jett in ‘Bad Reputation’

Coming to Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas for one night only on Wednesday, September 26, Bad Reputation provides a welcome reminder that Joan Jett has been rocking and rolling for over forty years (she just turned 60 earlier this week). Teenage Joan convinced her parents to buy her a Silvertone guitar for Christmas one year, and she’s been playing ever since.

Bad Reputation sticks pretty closely to the rockumentary template – interviews and performance footage in roughly equal measure – but Jett’s commitment to the music is what renders it a cut above the average. It also helps, of course, that Joan broke ground for women at a time when rock music was resolutely phallocentric and deeply chauvinistic. Long may she rock!

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...