Sundance 2022: Riotsville, U.S.A.

Directed by: Sierra Pettengill.
Distribution by: TBA

Written by Patrick Hao


Any good student of history knows that primary sources offer an invaluable view of the time. Documentary filmmaker, Sierra Pettengill, has long been keen to utilize archival footage to paint a portrait of history. With “The Reagan Show,” Pettengill uses archival footage to paint how the former president’s savant-like ability to utilize media to form his cult of personality. In “Riotsville, U.S.A.,” Pettengill uses similar techniques, using only government-funded and broadcast footage, to illustrate how America responded to the wave of riots in the mid-1960s in Newark, Detroit, Watts, and Chicago.

“Riotsville, U.S.A.” is referring to a fake city used by the federal government to train soldiers in quelling riots. The town is constructed, hollow and empty. Soldiers play protesters whose actions are almost as empty as the town. This footage provides the framework of Pettengill’s film as she jumps from footage of President Lyndon Johnson launching an investigation on riots led by Otto Kerner, news reports, and panel debate shows. The narration from Charlene Modeste as written by Tobi Haslett underlies the footage with critique and provides overall dreamlike quality to the footage.

It is clear what the film is speaking to. There is a depressing notion of how little things have changed since the 1960s, but even then, there is a clear sense of how little things have changed. The footage is presented as echoes of the present meant to elicit a mixture of head shaking and despondency. The film is more of an essay than it is an informational documentary. Pettengill and the narration are clearly tinged with anger even if it comes at a serene pace.  

The footage shows the government trying to come up with quick-fix solutions: maybe the solution is more welfare, housing, education, or maybe it is the inherent difference between black and white people. All this bantering while money is being poured into Vietnam and the militarization of the police forces. The footage paints a government that is unclear if it cares to be more preventive or punitive. 

The footage is cut together by editor Nels Bangerter who has worked on other film essayists/documentarians Brett Storey and Kirsten Johnson. His smooth editing and juxtapositions point to the hypocrisy of a government that purports to be of the people but so often is attempting to quell the people. With no talking head to root the footage in context, it is up to Bangerter’s editing to do so and he does it successfully.

“Riotsville, U.S.A.” is urgent political filmmaking with a clear point of view. Yet, like a good film essay, it is not needlessly didactic. Rather, it uses its footage to evoke and provoke. And what it elicits is anger and sadness of a government and political system rooted in its ways.

“Riotsville, U.S.A.” was screened as part of the 2022 edition of the Sundance Film Festival.

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