‘Riotsville, USA’ is deft, piercing narrative of American police-media symbiosis

Photo of "Riotsville, U.S.A." documentary promotion
Arch + Bow Films/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

“All the footage was created for broadcast television or by the U.S. military,” reads an early title card in Sierra Pettengill’s 2022 documentary feature “Riotsville, USA,” which screened at BAMPFA on May 1 as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival lineup. This detail is imperative to the documentary’s success: Tethered to conspicuously directional source material, the film’s pushback against the defense system and its media corollaries is hermetic and anticipatory of recent events. 

Most of the footage pulled from U.S. government archives centers on the artificial town of Riotsville, which was built by the military in the late 1960s as a testing site for amped-up military tactics intended to quash potential civil uprisings. A sort of postwar everytown replete with multicolor facades, Riotsville looks straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. It proffers a kind of American realism, but one stained with blood rather than Coca Cola.

Riotsville is a simulacrum of America’s tendency to fashion reality to its liking. It is but one piece of the puzzle that comprises the modern ills of pervasive state surveillance and violence, which are often taken as necessary evils rather than former conspiracies that have taken root as reality. Through the use of warped images, Pettengill sporadically calls attention to this artificiality throughout the film. In one example, she depicts hands raised in protest but detached from their bodies, existing in a liminal state. 

These images are markedly rationed throughout the film’s compact runtime, their scarcity begetting a heightened power. Alongside these altered images, the filmmakers weave in television footage that further explores the thread of ideological bedrock and rationalization for material practice. One clip shows a focus group of Americans watching Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement of the Kerner Commission, a federal government initiative created to investigate civil disorder. “It wasn’t political,” they all insist.

The irony of their delusion is right there on the nose. Their denial of the explicitly political is reminiscent of present-day rhetoric, which has continually sanctioned the violent subjugation of political dissidents since the Vietnam War. This is a function of what makes “Riotsville, USA” not only effective, but necessary — it narrativizes and makes sense of something that otherwise lacks clarity.

Throughout the film, Pettengill conveys that the flames of revolutionary potential in the United States have been extinguished not by a lack of drive or organization (as many would have it), but from the top down — by the military, police and media. A glimpse of a new reality came when the Kerner Commission released a widely disseminated report, which a television news clip refers to as “the fastest selling paperback since Valley of the Dolls.” Unexpectedly, the commission concluded that economic invigoration in America’s low-income communities was needed to quell unrest. But via the same government-media scheming, the U.S. failed to implement nearly any of the commission’s recommendations — except to allocate more funding to the police.

“Riotsville, USA” makes few inductive leaps — it doesn’t need to. Plenty of fodder for the documentarian machine is right there at the surface; the mental gymnastics and liberal finger wagging so prevalent in other films of its kind would be an overmeasure. Rather, as the narration phrases it, the footage compiled by Pettengill and editor Nels Bangerter produces a “pointilist picture of societal collapse,” reminiscent of Joan Didion’s wobbly center. 

As the film nears its end, another title card flashes across the screen, projecting a timeline of the film from its creative headwaters in 2015 to its conclusion in 2021. Looming over “Riotsville, USA” are the events of summer 2020, which had the potential to twist the film’s style and content to a world increasingly inclined to “listen and learn” and not much else. However, “Riotsville, USA” skirts around this opportunism, foiling the didacticism that saturates modern efforts to tell a story of the past. In doing so, it firmly fixes its critical gaze on our present and future.

Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].