The late-’60s, rife with social unrest, set the stage for a curious joint experiment between the police and military in simulating riots and how to contain them. The military devised peculiar fake cities and had half of those present play protestors and half play the people trying to manage them. Meanwhile President Lyndon B. Johnson formed the Kerner Commission, a collective of 11 white men with moderate political beliefs to detail a report on exactly what was causing unrest in various parts of the country, as recent events in California, Detroit, and New Jersey prompted reason for close study. The results of the report painted a surprisingly sharp picture: riots were the result of white racism and inequity. We already had the key, the clear as day reason why riots happened, and then we militarized the police to deal with it.
Riotsville, USA, Sierra Pettengill’s lyrical new documentary, radically utilizes archival footage shot by the media and government of a façade town that represents a heightened reality, still valuable and reflective to the situations of our times. As a matter of archival research, the documentation is fascinating and singular, presenting a time where we found out exactly what was going wrong, and then doubled down on a disproportionate response of retaliation instead of dealing with the facts. We view the city with its empty walls of faux buildings as a facsimile of a real riot situation, and the training is strangely one-directional — again, we find groups of middle-of-the-road white men trying to figure out exactly how someone living through actual inequality feels. It’s a gross and unfair experiment, of course, but the fact that it was done, and the implicit handshake between the police and the military involved, does help explain how we have gotten to where we are.
Pettengill’s documentary relies often on semi-poetic narration. It often thuds against the corporeal archival footage it is paired with. The film listlessly moves through these motions, engaging spuriously and without exact conflict, with the material presented. It frankly presents what has happened, tries to poeticize it, but that is not the exact approach that matches the meaning of the text, here. It still functions well enough — it’s a very functional and perfunctory documentary — and we do get an inside lens into a bizarre recreation into the protests of the times, but trying to jazz up the language around the presentation ultimately flattens and dulls the image in precarious and unintended ways.
Riotsville, USA is a unique work. It explores inequity and the causes of militarization in some wholly unique ways. It’s a vital new lens into the relationship between the police, the military, and protestors. It misses, occasionally, in the presentation of the material, but remains incisive and fascinating to study. Pettengill’s use of archival footage is inspired and well constructed, utilizing the shape of the documentary to detail very specific events worthy of study. The attempts at poetry sometimes let down the subject but there’s enough to chew on that it’s still a good and informative watch, and a provocative takeaway from this year’s Sundance.
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