Sierra Pettengill explores the history of police violence to counter civil unrest, probing the status of images as material memories
Sierra Pettengill’s previous feature, the 2017 documentary The Reagan Show, took a swipe at the American president in a way that only a filmmaker with equal appreciation for the past and present can. While she has been working on insightful shorts in the meantime (such as 2021’s The Rifleman), her latest feature surpasses expectations when it comes to the archival-doc-cum-essay-film genre.
Riotsville, U.S.A. emerged from the time when Pettengill, reading Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland,” came across mention of Army-built model towns designed as police training grounds against the civil insurgencies of the 1960s. It was when the director/archival researcher couldn’t find any photos or footage of these towns that her interest was first piqued.
In a way, Riotsville, U.S.A. was born out of necessity, as a response to the ever-growing police violence and impending suffocation of the right to protest, but also out of a gap. Before Pettengill, no one had ever digitised the footage available; therefore, it was invisible. The opening lines on screen inform us that “the film consists of archival footage from the late 1960s” and that “all of the footage was created for broadcast television or by the U.S. military.”
A 90-minute essay film using only state-sanctioned footage might sound as exotic as an experimental film would to most audiences, but there is something truly riveting about how Riotsville folds and unfolds as a feature-length feature. Without any of the conventional markers of first, second, or third act – no resolution, only conflict – the director and her crew invite us to take a closer look at a history of violence that seems not only supported, but perpetuated until this day.
What makes up the visual parts of the film is, of course, footage of these diorama-like towns, their artificiality protruding as much as the soldiers who are supposed to play disobedient crowds. Some training sessions are shown in their full glory – or pity – to rather chilling effect. By dislocating the archival shots from their original purpose, the film underscores the uncanny character of such re-enactments and evokes the lethal violence that follows. With the right amount of contextualisation, given to us by the narrator (voiced by Charlene Modeste’s low and confident timbre), the facts of the anti-US protests in Chicago, Newark, Detroit and hundred more cities in the late 1960s embody a struggle of immense proportions. Since “the people took revenge on the cities that contained them,” a higher order had to interfere.
In combination with Jace Clayton’s perfectly paced score, the voiceover is equal parts unyielding, analytical, and precise. Supplied by political writer and essayist Tobi Haslett, its “script” is often poetic not only in its use of metaphors, but also in the resolute tone with which it communicates anger and a stance against objectivity. Riotstville, the model town, could be – and it was – anywhere and everywhere in America.
While the film shines a light on how constructed this systemic violence is, such an overview excites and terrifies: what becomes of this archive, now that it exists in the world? Can it change the present? Riotsville, U.S.A., reflects on the status of images, whether a pixelated fragment, or something unrecognisable. Maybe this intervention is already an act of defiance against the graspability and proliferation of images? Images are material memories, but whose memories? In the end, the film manages to rearrange the archive according to a new law of visibility, rather than re-enactment.
Riotsville, U.S.A is released in UK cinemas and on select digital platforms on 31 March.Where to watch