‘Riotsville, USA’ Reveals Bizarre Military Response to 1960s Protests
It’s a rare thing in a movie where text and subtext can exist on exactly the same level, but that’s exactly what director Sierra Pettengill has discovered in her new archival documentary. Composed almost entirely of publicly available footage from government sources and contemporary news broadcasts, Riotville, United States highlights a bizarre episode in the history of government repression of dissent and citizen protest.
In response to the wave of urban riots that swept the United States in the late 1960s—all outbursts of deep and entirely justified anger on the part of economically marginalized and relentlessly controlled African-American populations—the Johnson administration established the Kerner Commission to study and report on how and why these rebellions broke out.
Despite the commission’s inherent ideological limitations, the report it published in 1968 was surprisingly clear-sighted about the social, economic, and racial ills underlying these explosions. He also made far-reaching recommendations to invest billions in anti-poverty initiatives, provide education and job training, and try to address the concerns of black Americans.
Tellingly, the only one of the commission’s recommendations that was adopted by the government was an increase in funding for military and police forces and the provision of training in riot control methods. With cash in hand, the military proceeded to build false front “cities” on military bases to train soldiers, National Guardsmen and police in crowd control tactics for future uprisings. By outfitting some military personnel with makeshift protest placards and “hippie” attire to play the role of insurgent populations, the military has acted out scenarios in these “Riotsvilles” based on their own understanding of the causes motivating urban rebellions – which, perhaps -to be needless to say, had very little to do with the reality of the same.
From the raw material of footage unearthed from Riotsville, Pettengill’s film spirals steadily outward to show how fantasies staged in the Army’s Potemkin villages became violent reality on the streets of Chicago. at the 1968 Democratic convention – and, in a much less well-known context. episode, in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood during the same year’s Republican convention, as guns, tanks and tear gas were directed at African-American protesters.
A professional archival researcher who has previously worked for directors such as Jim Jarmusch and also produced the Oscar-nominated documentary 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. His 2017 short film engraved image delved into the story behind the construction of Georgia’s Stone Mountain Mural, the nation’s largest Confederate monument. In the last year the rifleman, she profiled Harlon Carter, the NRA chairman who set the organization on the radical right-wing path it has followed for the past four decades.
Six years of preparation Riotville, United States is both Pettengill’s feature-length documentary debut and his most technically and conceptually ambitious project to date. “I take a long time to do all my movies, which I thought was a flaw until this movie,” Pettengill said in an interview with real screen, a few days before Riotville, United States‘s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21. Because I think this movie really needed that time, and it’s been such a crazy six years in America that where I started was different from where I ended up.
The interview below has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
When and where did you first encounter Riotsville footage, and when did your plan for the project begin to take shape?
This was early 2015. I’m an archival researcher by trade, and I had read a very brief mention of Riotsville, and it just seemed totally insane. I did a quick google search to see what else I could find, and there was really no information available – a few newspaper articles, but that was it.
So I found a record in the National Archives catalog that sounded like Riotsville…and ordered a transfer of that footage. I was working with a brilliant researcher named Jonathan Rappaport, and because there was no information on this program, we started jotting down names on all the slates. [in the footage], and began trying to track down cinematographers and interview them. Then we found the battalion that was carrying out [in the footage], and we contacted them. Although my films are all archives, I really like doing interviews, and for a long time I thought that these interviews were going to be in the film.
In the rifleman and engraved image, you limit any external commentary to headings which, although stated, are more or less clearly factual. In Riotsville, you include voice-over narration written by Tobi Haslett, which is both more allusive and evocative but also often more directly condemnatory than the intertitles of these earlier films. Why did you choose to incorporate this kind of commentary into the film?
Well, one reason is that you can do a lot more in a feature film than in 10 or 20 minutes. I like to leave my archives [material] be of duration – I like not to cross-reference the sources too much, because the context of it all is quite important to me. So to let this material breathe in short form, you need to pare down your toolbox.
Part of the process of making an archival or historical documentary is [explicitly] position yourself as someone in the present 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. Thus, in the section of the Kerner Commission, this voice is quite effective in telling a complex institutional story; in the Frantz Fanon section, it’s furious and poetic.
Also, I think sometimes documentary is treated as a science rather than an art, and a lot of what Tobi’s voiceover does here creates room for beauty and reflection in a film so violent and can be read as really pessimistic.
In your use of TV news, you often include uncomfortable pauses, on-air gaffes, blown takes, and so on. What was your intention in distinguishing these awkward “in-between” or ending moments??
They are for different purposes at different times. In sections like the Witch Craft tank report, where this reporter laughs and fumbles, [it’s to point out] those [recurring] reactions of absurdity or hilarity, this levity in the treatment of very violent things by the news media – and the way ABC News covers it as if it were actually news, rather than a publicity stunt by a private company trying to get federal government money.
It might seem like a bridge too far, but one thing I thought about so much while making this film is that while it traces the building of a militarized police state in real time, there’s something a little liberating to realize how things are built, block by block. So [these gaffes and outtakes allow you to] get an overview of how it’s done, and who’s doing 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. system..
That’s what the process of making this film was: how to make sense of these images both in a [literal] the context [and a more psychological one]. So, on the one hand, we answer basic questions: what were the Riotsvilles used for, where did they come from, who paid for them, who managed them, etc. And then there’s the question, “What is depicted here?”
There’s a Harun Farocki movie that I love called How to live in FRG, [which is an archival film that basically shows us] rehearsals for citizenship. And there’s a similar kind of imprint that happens [in this footage]: it reflects a set of attitudes, a way of compartmentalizing or abstracting humans and citizens and their needs in a fully [the military’s] own invention. They make fake protest signs, they give [the roleplayers] “hippie” uniforms – this is a really interesting reflection of how these movements were seen [by the authorities].
And I think you rarely get those thoughts in a visual form. You can get them through documents and interviews, but visually you very rarely see the government and the military creating a world for themselves that reflects what they think it should be.
These riots were supposed to have the practical purpose of training the police and military in riot control, and yet many of the scenarios they play out are based on fictions they made up about the actual riots, such as the emphasis on “outside agitators” and “snipers”. So they train for things that more or less don’t exist in the real situations they train for.
Yeah, they create reality. If you’re training people for snipers, then [when they actually get into a real-life situation] they are looking at for snipers, because there are are snipers – because it’s recorded, you know? You see that happen in the Liberty City sequence, the police and the reporters saying “There are snipers here”, and we as the audience know there probably aren’t. – and if there are, it’s probably the police.
I really think it’s a film about echoes — it’s made of echoes. At the end of the Liberty City sequence, [Black journalist] Bob Reed gives a really articulate, succinct, poetic, and about the money summary of what’s going on – it’s pent up anger, it’s I’m not gonna take it anymore – that you’ve heard over and over and over again [from Black interviewees and commentators] in the movie. And then his white colleague says, “Well, I guess we’ll never know the reason.”
And that’s how the movie makes me feel, when we’re sitting here in 2022 watching the 60s: we’ve heard these same things over and over and over. [over the decades], and we keep saying, “I guess we’ll never know.” This can be repeated as many times as you wish, and we always pretend not to know what is really going on. And I think this movie hopefully shows that lie.
Riotville, United States will have a second screening at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, January 23.