Sundance 2018: Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17

On Film / The Daily — Jan 31, 2018

“Originality has never been a problem for documentarian Robert Greene, whose films Actress and Kate Plays Christine have freely crossed the lines between fly-on-the-wall realism and overt artificiality,” writes Noel Murray for the Week.Bisbee ’17 is Greene’s masterwork. Shot during one Arizona town’s commemoration of an infamous 1917 labor dispute, the film combines reenactments of the deadly miners’ strike with the wry observations and deeply entrenched political opinions of the townsfolk and actors (some of whom are one and the same). Bisbee ’17 is about what divides Americans, then and now, and also about the ghosts that keep haunting us whenever we default to enmity rather than empathy.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang notes that an end was put to the 1917 standoff in Bisbee when a thousand “striking German and Mexican miners were shipped off at gunpoint and left for dead in the New Mexico desert. Greene doesn’t just revisit this traumatic event; he reinhabits it, not only conducting interviews with the town’s present-day residents but also staging a dramatic re-creation of the deportation. It’s a completely rigged, artificial conceit that—as with so many of the completely rigged, artificial conceits in Greene’s work—turns out to be a surprisingly direct route to the truth.”

“In effect,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “Greene is impersonating a Hollywood filmmaker of historical dramas, a Steven Spielberg or an Edward Zwick, in order to film a documentary about the town of Bisbee today and the still-powerful traces of its stifled history—to film a behind-the-scenes and making-of documentary about a film that he would make if he were such a filmmaker. . . . With microcosms of microcosms and reflections of reflections, Greene offers a passionately ambitious, patiently empathetic mapping of modern times.”

Bisbee ’17 “hits a lot of my aesthetic sweet spots,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov: “there are Gerry-esque walking shots for days, and the widescreen framing perfectly fits the expansive landscape tableau. Where Greene’s previous work purposefully set about muddling the boundaries between straight documentary and ambiguous staged narrative, here the lines are clear: observational footage on one hand, completely staged reenactments on the other, including musical numbers.”

“Greene’s aesthetics prove not only arresting, but in sync with his larger depiction of a community wracked by dissonance and in search of unique ways to come to terms with its heritage,” writes Nick Schager for Variety. “Lawrence Everson’s soundtrack is marked by anxiously strident strings and thudding foot-stomping beats. Jarred Alterman’s cinematography, generates unease from gliding pans and interview set-ups that begin before the speaker starts talking and end long after they’ve finished. It’s a formally dexterous portrait of a municipality and its people, using both drama and documentary filmmaking to look in the mirror, and—by finally seeing, and confronting, an ugly truth—discovering a measure of healing and solidarity.”

This is “a singularly American riff on The Act of Killing,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “a fascinating and dream-like mosaic that’s less driven by residual anger than by cockeyed concern, less interested in exhuming the past than in revealing its value to the present.”

“Greene is not interested in streamlining anything,” writes Ben Umstead at ScreenAnarchy. “Just as he is with the residents of Bisbee, he is asking all of us to confront and challenge our notions of cinema, of story, of memory, both personal and collective, and of the very bone marrow of society itself.”

More from Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), Mike D’Angelo (57/100), David Fear (Rolling Stone), Victor Morton (Salt Lake City Weekly, 3/4), Daniel Schindel (Film Stage, B+), and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com).

Lauren Wissot interviews Greene for Filmmaker, where you’ll also find cinematographer Jarred Alterman talking about his experience: “Driving through the desert on our first scout, I realized how important the landscape was going to be for this picture. The psychedelic colors of the earth, the dramatic shifts of light and color temperature, turning mountains blue and sagauro cacti fluorescent green was awe inspiring (and terrifying.)”

Sundance 2018 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.