It’s a rare thing in a film when text and subtext can exist on exactly the same level, but that’s exactly what director Sierra Pettengill has uncovered in her new archival documentary. Composed almost entirely of public-access footage from government sources and contemporary news broadcasts, Riotsville, U.S.A. spotlights a bizarre episode from the history of government suppression of citizen dissent and protest.
In response to the wave of urban riots that swept across the U.S. in the late 1960s — all of them outbursts of deep-seated, wholly justified anger from the cities’ economically marginalized and relentlessly policed African-American populations — the Johnson administration established the Kerner Commission to study and report on how and why these rebellions erupted.
Despite the commission’s built-in ideological limitations, the report it published in 1968 was surprisingly clear-eyed about the social, economic, and racial ills that underlay these explosions. It also made wide-ranging recommendations to invest billions in initiatives to combat poverty, provide education and job training, and otherwise attempt to address the concerns of Black Americans.
Tellingly, the only one of the commission’s recommendations that was enacted by the government was an increase in funding for the military and police forces, and the provision of training in riot control methods. With cash in hand, the military proceeded to construct false-front “towns” on army bases in order to train soldiers, National Guardsmen, and police officers in crowd-control tactics for future uprisings. Equipping some service members with makeshift protest signs and “hippie” outfits to act the part of insurgent populations, the army played out scenarios in these “Riotsvilles” based on their own understanding of the motivating causes behind the urban rebellions — which, perhaps needless to say, had precious little to do with the reality of same.
From the core material of the unearthed Riotsville footage, Pettengill’s film spirals steadily outward to show how the fantasies being enacted in the army’s Potemkin villages became violent reality in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention — and, in a much less well-known episode, in the Miami neighborhood of Liberty City during the same year’s Republican convention, as guns, tanks, and tear gas were turned on African-American protestors.
A professional archival researcher who has previously worked for directors such as Jim Jarmusch and also produced the Oscar-nominated doc Cutie and the Boxer, Pettengill has carved out a parallel career as a filmmaker who uses the detritus of the filmed past to trace the genealogy of today’s social and political ills. Her 2017 short Graven Image excavated the history behind the construction of the Stone Mountain fresco in Georgia, the country’s largest Confederate monument. In last year’s The Rifleman, she profiled Harlon Carter, the NRA president who set the organization on the radical right-wing path it has followed for the last four decades.
Six years in the making, Riotsville, U.S.A. is both Pettengill’s first documentary feature and her most technically and conceptually ambitious project to date. “I take a really long time to make all my films, which I had thought was a flaw until this film,” said Pettengill in an interview with Realscreen, a few days before Riotsville, U.S.A.‘s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21. “It’s gruelling, but it’s my way, and I’m determined to stop complaining about it. Because I think that this film really needed that time, and it’s been such an insane six years in America that where I started was different from where I ended.”
The interview below has been edited for clarity and concision.
When and where did you first encounter the Riotsville footage, and when did your plan for the project begin to take shape?
That was in early 2015. I’m an archival researcher by trade, and I had read a very brief mention of Riotsville, and it sounded totally insane to me. I did a quick Google search to see what else I could find, and there was really no information out there — a few newspaper articles, but that’s it.
So I found a record in the National Archives catalog that sounded like it might be Riotsville… and ordered a transfer of that footage. I was working with a brilliant researcher named Jonathan Rappaport, and because there was no information about this program we started taking down the names on all the slates [in the footage], and started trying to track down the cinematographers and interview them. Then we found the battalion that was performing [in the footage], and we contacted them. Although my films are all archival, I really like doing interviews, and for a long time I thought those interviews were going to be in the film.
In The Rifleman and Graven Image, you limit any external commentary to intertitles that, while pointed, are more or less plainly factual. In Riotsville, you include a voiceover narration written by Tobi Haslett, which is both more allusive and evocative but also often more directly condemnatory than the intertitles in those previous films. Why did you opt to incorporate this kind of commentary in the film?
Well, one reason is that you can do a lot more in a long-form film than you can in 10 or 20 minutes. I like to let my archival [material] be durational — I like to not crosscut sources too much, because the context of all of it is pretty important to me. So letting that material breathe in a short form necessitates you pare back your toolbox.
Part of the process of making an archival or historical documentary is [explicitly] positioning yourself as someone in the present who is looking at something in the past. So for this film, I didn’t want a “narrator,” I wanted Tobi’s particular voice, and I wanted to allow that voice to take on different tones depending on what it was talking about. So in the Kerner Commission section, that voice is pretty effective at recounting a complex institutional history; in the Frantz Fanon section, it’s furious and poetic.
Also, I think sometimes documentary gets treated as a science rather than an art, and a lot of what Tobi’s voiceover is doing here is creating room for beauty and reflection in a film that’s so violent, and can be read as really pessimistic.
In your use of TV news footage, you often include uncomfortable pauses, on-air gaffes, blown takes, et cetera. What was your intention in singling out these uncomfortable “in-between” or tail-end moments?
They’re for different purposes at different times. In sections like the report on the Witch Craft tank, where that reporter is laughing and fumbling, [it's to point out] these [recurring] reactions of absurdity or hilarity, this lightness of the treatment of very violent things by the news media — and the way that ABC News is covering it as if this was actually news, rather than a PR stunt by a private company trying to get federal money.
This may sound like a bridge too far, but something I thought about so much while making this film is that, even as it’s tracing the construction of a militarized police state in real time, there’s something a little liberating in realizing how things are constructed, block by block. So [these gaffes and outtakes allow you to] get a glimpse of how this is being made, and who’s making it.
The Riotsvilles we see in the film are extremely resonant symbols, in that they are both instruments within a system of social control and also indicative of the mindset underlying that system.
That’s what the process of making this film was: how do you make sense of these images in both a [literal] context [and a more psychological one]. So on the one hand, we’re answering basic questions: what were the Riotsvilles used for, where did they come from, who paid for them, who ran them, et cetera. And then there’s the question of, “What is being represented here?”
There’s a Harun Farocki film I love called How to Live in the FRG, [which is an archival film that basically shows us] rehearsals for citizenship. And there’s a similar kind of imprinting happening [in this footage]: it reflects a set of attitudes, a way of compartmentalizing or abstracting humans and citizens and their needs into a roleplay that is entirely of [the military's] own invention. They’re making up fake protest signs, they’re giving [the roleplayers] “hippie” uniforms — it’s a really interesting reflection of how these movements were seen [by the authorities].
And I think you rarely get these reflections in a visual form. You can get them through documents and interviews, but visually, you very rarely get to see the government and the military creating a world for themselves that reflects how they think it should be.
These Riotsvilles were supposed to be for the practical purpose of training the police and military for riot control, and yet so many of the scenarios they play out are based on fictions that they made up about the actual riots, like the insistence on “outside agitators” and “snipers.” So they’re training for things that more or less do not exist in the real situations they are training for.
Yeah, they’re creating reality. If you’re training people for snipers, then [when they actually get into a real-life situation] they’re looking for snipers, because there are snipers — because it’s on the record, you know? You see this happening in the Liberty City sequence, the police and reporters saying “There are snipers out here,” and we as an audience know that there probably aren’t — and if there are, they’re probably the police.
I really think that this is a film about echoes — it’s constructed of echoes. At the end of the Liberty City sequence, [Black journalist] Bob Reed gives a really articulate, succinct, poetic, on-the-money summary of what’s happening — this is pent-up anger, it’s I’m-not going-to-take-it-anymore — which you’ve been hearing over and over and over [from Black interviewees and commentators] in the film. And then his white colleague goes, “Well, I guess we’ll never know the reason.”
And that’s what the film feels like to me, when we’re sitting here in 2022 looking at the ’60s: we’ve heard these same things over and over and over again [over the decades], and still we keep saying, “I guess we’ll never know.” It can be repeated as many times as you want, and we’re still feigning ignorance about what’s really happening. And I think this film hopefully shows that lie.
Riotsville, U.S.A. will have a second screening at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, January 23.