Riotsville, USA traces an alternate history on top of official record and crafts an incisive examination that is as hypnotic as it is fervent.
It’s almost more fascinating to note the array of footage that isn’t in Sierra Pettengill’s daring archival film Riotsville, USA than the materials that are. Specified as being compiled solely from footage shot by U.S. military or broadcast news, the film traces a path through both the concrete and the indefinite, making unmistakable the connections between 1960s “innovations” in policing and the all-pervasive threats that legitimate protests face at a moment’s notice today. But despite its confrontational bluntness and bleak subject matter, the film is anything but didactic.
Riotsville, USA refers to a certain twist on the Potemkin village that the American military perpetrated in the ’60s. Shoddy miniature towns built on military bases, all plywood facades and childish signage, that served one sole use: to provide the army and the police an area to practice riot control and suppression tactics. As numerous commanding officers watch, soldiers play-act at being anti-war protestors before being effortlessly quelled (to the officers’ applause). An especially nasty recurring gesture is laughter at a man pretending to be a Black Power agitator, his more open outbursts amusing the people in charge.
If Riotsville, USA had confined itself to this approach, transforming propaganda into procedure, it would already be worthwhile. But Pettengill goes much further, at least within the span of about five years. The inciting element is the formation of the Kerner Commission by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 for the purpose of analyzing the many riots that had occurred the previous summer; though composed of the most centrist and milquetoast politicians possible, it nevertheless handed down a damning portrait of racial and economic inequality that made such disturbances inevitable and advocated for an effort greater than the Vietnam War to combat this climate.
While the immediate connection is made explicit, in its note that the only spending policy that Congress chose to enact was to greatly increase federal funding for police budgets, Riotsville, USA spends a good deal of time looking at the perspectives of those who had some voice on the national stage, especially via a few panels on the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, a PBS predecessor whose funding was withdrawn in response to supposed liberal bias. From a fiery preacher to a police captain who cites Reader’s Digest as a well-respected publication, all their actions and words are explicitly contextualized within a certain apparatus of thinking, in dialogue with the apparatus of control being developed nationwide.
Along with this mountain of footage, assembled deftly by Cameraperson editor Nels Bangerter, Pettengill enacts numerous interventions, breaking the film’s ostensible diegesis and directly addressing the viewer’s understanding. At unexpected intervals, voiceover written by Tobi Haslett unfurls over stunningly treated footage — whether it be odd morphing, pointillist focus on black dots amid white newsprint or red-green-blue television ray, or circular vignetting — which foregrounds the poeticism suggested by Jace Clayton’s electronic score and the sheer surrealism of soldiers parading in an empty town, moving between objective facts and media analysis. More prevalent and just as effective is the use of brutally frank intertitles — often only a single short sentence — which provide information so damningly direct that any further explication could upset the balance.
Riotsville, USA uses its last third to consider another significant 1968 convention: the Republican National Convention in Miami which nominated Richard Nixon, or rather, the riot that happened in nearby Liberty City, a Black neighborhood repeatedly ignored and downtrodden by its affluent neighbors. In this tracing of an alternate view upon the official history, and a final analogy which lays all idealizations of a city, utopian and fascist, to bear, Pettengill caps an incisive examination, as hypnotic as it is fervent.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 4.