This film takes place in the town of Bisbee, around events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ‘Bisbee Deportations’ in which over 1000 striking copper miners and their supporters were rounded up, loaded onto trains and abandoned in the desert, told that if they returned to Bisbee they would be killed. It’s never clear just how much of the commemoration, which includes a re-creation of the deportations, Greene and his crew are entirely responsible for, but that ceases to matter quickly, because the point here is to use the preparations for the re-enactment to look at how the town has tried to sweep events under the rug for many years, and how it is now coming to terms with talking about the deportation and the sides on which their families fell 100 years ago.
Many of the families still in Bisbee in 2017 are there because in 1917 their ancestors sided with the mining companies, helping round up the deportees – mainly immigrants, with 34 nationalities represented – and it is easy to understand why many of them would want either to forget the events or to try to justify them (a long term company man speaks of how his father told him that had the deportations not happened there would have been blood on the streets of Bisbee). Perhaps most interesting is a family whose ancestry straddles both sides of the line, the great grandfather having put his own brother on the trains. Two brothers from the family, both in their forties, end up playing the roles of the great grandfather and great uncle, and Green’s camera captures with real clarity the conflicting emotions as one brother puts the other on the cattle car in the re-enactment, surely wondering if this was how it really went, and if he and his family can still justify their great grandfather’s actions.
The other participant Greene focuses on is a young Mexican man who has spent much of his life in Bisbee, and is playing a deportee. He didn’t know about the deportations before the film came to town, and while his family wasn’t in Bisbee at that time, his mother was deported to Mexico when he was seven. It’s fascinating to watch as this young man who describes himself as non-political at the outset is clearly deeply affected by the weight of what he’s playing. He’s the one character I wish Greene updated us on, I wonder if he’s become more politically active, particularly in a union of some kind.
The feelings here are as complex as the form, the questions about Bisbee as interesting as those about the border between documentary and dramatisation. Greene doesn’t seem to push either aspect, instead letting his characters and his technique unfold their questions and answers in their own time.
Woman At War
Woman At War starts intriguingly weirdly, with middle-aged Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) using a bow and arrow and a metal cable to knock out the power at an aluminium plant. It turns out that this is part of an ongoing campaign, and that she has a manifesto explaining her actions ready to publish. In her daily life, Halla has been waiting for years to hear about an adoption application and just as she’s about to release her manifesto, the good news comes that she has been approved as an adoptive parent.
For about ten minutes this is a very promising film. It’s strikingly shot, with the opening images of Halla knocking out the power lines and then the reveal that the band playing the score is standing on the mountainside with her both having a bone dry absurdist wit that points to some comic inventiveness from director and co-writer Benedikt Erlingsson as well as an aspiration to political relevance when we realise that Halla’s actions are driven by concern for the environment. Unfortunately, just about everything we will see in the film happens in those first ten minutes.
An absurdist political comedy is perhaps one the saner responses to the way we find the world today, but Woman At War develops neither its politics nor its comedy very interestingly. We get the broad strokes of Halla’s aims, but never go deeper into what drives her, and particularly what spurs her on when the adoption she has been waiting for is about to come through. More problematic than this is the comedy. There are two jokes in this film, both repeated ad nauseam and both relying on you finding the incongruity of people repeatedly appearing coincidentally hilarious. The gag with the musicians is fairly funny in the film’s opening, but then we see it again, and again, and again. By the sixth time the gag repeats it has lost any comic value, by the sixteenth, it is actively, grindingly, irritating. The same goes for a gag about a tourist who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is less frequently rolled out, but still deeply, painfully, predictable by the last time we see it. It’s not just that the form of the gag is the same each time, it’s in the telling, Erlingsson barely varies anything about these jokes each time they crop up and in all honesty, neither is hugely funny even the first time it’s employed.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir does what she can with the material, and I suspect she’d be effective had the film taken a straight approach and played off the pull of Halla’s politics and her desire for a child in a more dramatic fashion. Perhaps some of the humour is lost in translation or the script is just so dry that the gags never come through in the dialogue, but sometimes it feels as though Geirharðsdóttir is reaching for the tone and not quite finding it.
The direction is sometimes formally interesting, with Erlingsson looking for laughs in the compositions he reveals the musicians in, or by holding his shots just a little too long, but again it’s all in service of a joke that stopped working very quickly, so whatever effect it might have or however clever it might appear, that effect is diluted. For me, this is a film that needed to pick a lane; either go full bore for the politics and the way it conflicts with the way Halla’s life is about to change or make a truly crazy absurdist comedy. Both approaches are rich with potential but this shallow approach to doing both serves neither aspect of the film well.
BISBEE ’17 screens in LFF’s Documentary Competition on Wednesday 17th and Thursday 18th of October.
Woman At War screens in LFF’s Laugh programme on Friday 19th and Sunday 21st of October