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Doc Talk

Deportees, exiles, and an invasive species

A still image from “Bisbee ’17.” 4th Row Films

Armed men go house to house, rousing people from sleep, dragging them and hundreds of others to cattle cars where they are jammed in to be deported to an unknown destination. 

This is not Nazi Germany. It is the United States of America. It happened on July 12, 1917, in the border town of Bisbee, Ariz.

Could it happen again? That’s the looming question in the masterful, powerful documentary “Bisbee ’17” by Robert Greene (“Kate Plays Christine”), which focuses on the town’s cathartic, centennial re-creation of the event .

As related by the various local historians interviewed for the film, those deported either participated in or showed sympathy for a strike organized by the International Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) at the huge local copper mine.

Some argue that the action was a response to the threat to public safety posed by “socialists.” They also point out the need to maintain the supply of copper during World War I. But these explanations don’t account for why those who did the rounding up were all Anglo-Saxon, and those driven out were immigrants or descendants of immigrants. It was, as one of the historians interviewed bluntly puts it, “ethnic cleansing.”


Greene profiles several of the participants in the re-creation. Most are descendants of the ostracized miners and those who drove them out. Some have no connection to Bisbee’s past, like Fernando, a 23-year-old, gay Mexican-American recent resident whose mother was deported and jailed and whose political consciousness is awakened when he plays a striking miner. Perhaps most poignant is Sue Ray, whose grandfather deported his own brother. They are portrayed in the reenactment by Ray’s two sons .

Greene seamlessly weaves together the preparations for the event, the stories of the participants, and excerpts from the reenactment, which look like scenes from a period picture. It is like a combination of “Matewan” (1987), John Sayles’s feature about another tragic miners’ strike, and “Spettacolo” (2017), Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s documentary about an Italian town that puts on an annual stage show about the town itself. But specters haunt this re-creation of the past — the persistent racism, xenophobia, and irrationality that threaten to take over our politics again.


“Bisbee ’17” screens Sept. 20-26, as part of the DocYard film series at the Brattle Theatre. The filmmaker will participate in a discussion moderated by local documentarian Robb Moss after the 7 p.m. Thursday screening.

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Sea worthy

Many documentaries have been made about the plight of Palestinians, but few are as lyrical and visually striking as Mais Darwazah’s “My Love Awaits Me by the Sea” (2013). The love of the title is the poet Hasan Hourani, who drowned in 2003, trying to rescue his cousin from the sea off Jaffa. A second-generation Palestinian living in Jordan, Darwazah never met Hourani, but recites in voice-over his mystical, transcendent verse. 

These verses contrast with and complement her interviews with fellow Palestinians. They include a restive resident of Damascus just prior to the civil war and a young family in Jerusalem whose cocoon of tranquility contrasts with the surrounding checkpoints, armed soldiers, and a looming wall. Some of the insights are harsh and tragic but elevated to a troubled artwork by Hourani’s poetry, Darwazah’s commentary, her exquisite drawings and watercolors that take shape on the screen, the down-to-earth humor of her mother, and the elusiveness of a purging sea.

“My Love Awaits Me by the Sea” can be streamed on Filmatique, beginning on Thursday.

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King rat

Louisiana has endured killer hurricanes like Katrina and the spread of kudzu, but nothing quite as creepy as the nutria, a 30-pound swamp rat from Argentina with enormous orange teeth.

That’s the subject of Quinn Costello, Jeff Springer, and Chris Metzler’s whimsical and alarming documentary, “Rodents of Unusual Size.” It traces the history of the plague with interviews with experts, amusing animation, and profiles of locals dealing with the problem.

The disaster began with the best intentions. At the height of the Depression, some Louisiana businessmen (including the son of Edmund McIlhenny, inventor of Tabasco sauce) decided that they could revive the local economy by importing the nutria; though repulsive, its skin made for a luxurious fur.

The plan worked until the 1980s, when animal-rights activists stifled the fur trade. The final link in this long chain of unintended consequences was an unchecked proliferation of the giant, ravenous rodents: Unthreatened by other predators, they multiplied and spread everywhere, devouring the vegetation that protected the soil, and so contributing to the decline of the wetlands that protect the area from flooding and storm surge.


But the people of Louisiana are resilient. The state put a bounty on the animals — $5 for each tail. That’s a respectable sum for diehard residents like crotchety Thomas Gonzalez of Delacroix Island and his fellow Cajun neighbors. They cash in up to 100 of the severed appendages a week.

Others are more ingenious and ambitious. Can people be convinced that a giant rat properly prepared is a delicious and healthy food? That’s what some New Orleans chefs are hoping (it tastes like rabbit but isn’t as cute). And clothing designers have come up with an angle to make nutria fur acceptable again. They push it as environmentally friendly and aim for a market looking for “edgy” fashion.

A compendium of colorful characters and rodent carcasses in various stages of dismemberment (in one impressive sequence contestants skin a nutria in under 25 seconds), “Rodents of Unusual Size” is also a look at how human folly can contribute to environmental disaster, but awareness and ingenuity can help bail us out.

“Rodents of Unusual Size” screens on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Regent Theatre, in Arlington. Metzler and Springer will be available for a Q & A.

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Peter Keough can be reached at