By Glenn Dunk
The Sierra Pettengill Riotville, United States starts out so strong. It makes a striking first impression with the use of an old government film shot of a fake city built on a military base that is used to train soldiers on how to handle a riot. The entire film, we are informed in an opening title card, will be told using this government archive footage as well as television news coverage. This particular footage dates to the 1960s, when protest and activism began to grip audiences, especially those in predominantly African-American communities. In one of the more depressing sites, black soldiers are regularly shown in such images throughout the depiction of these (so-called) rioters; asked to loot and threaten. The humiliation they must have felt is palpable…
However, like Pettingill’s last film, The Reagan Show from 2016 (another doc all archives), Riotville, United States doesn’t do much with these fascinating images. I thought this sequence was going to be the introduction to a denser narrative, but that never happens.
After a while of watching this video with interjections from other sources, it ceases to be interesting. Repeating as it does, sometimes with fairly uninvolved and flat narration from actress Charlene Modeste. It’s a missed opportunity. As I watched, a reminder The Atomic Cafe and wished for some of the wit in the editing of this documentary classic, or just some of its energy. It feels half complete. I kept wanting to ask, well, where’s the rest?
There were several such “Riotsville” townships set up across the country. A stretch of storefronts built on a false road no longer than a standard city block in any small rural town. These exercises – glass is broken, white goods stolen and put in trucks! – are watched by a crowd of old white men in military uniforms and insignia. Again, the saddest moment comes when a black soldier playing the role of a protester shouts that his arm is dangerously winged backwards and we, the viewer, cannot tell if he is really hurt or if it is simply very efficient. The crowd laughs anyway. It’s quite a show.
Moments like these should turn into something with a little more to say. But unfortunately, they drag on far too long. While additional context isn’t necessary to understand what we’re seeing (it’s pretty clear), some sort of historical reflection would have been appreciated. Beyond the narration, in any case. This is a situation where talking heads would really amplify a documentary. Or even layered voices to tell us something beyond a fairly rudimentary essay. The footage Is say a lot. It doesn’t take much to notice that the language used in this footage is similar (if not downright identical) to the same conservative dog whistles of today, such as “outside agitators” to refer to blacks and leftists. It also doesn’t take much to notice that, yes, instead of spending money on improving equality in housing, jobs and minimum wages, billions are being embedded in the police force to militarize their outfits and riot control to control the masses. These are valiant points, but they’re done pretty early on without much deeper exploration.
When the film moves away from these types of sequences, it finds itself with a little more vigor in its narration. While the one from the 1968 Republican National Convention is fairly well known and has been covered elsewhere, it is nevertheless an interesting passage that adds color to Riotsville‘s greatest narrative. This is exactly what they trained for and yet. A detour through the publication of the 1967 Kerner report is one of its most fascinating passages. A two-thirds-of-the-course performance by Jimmy Collier and the Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick performing the protest song “Burn Baby Burn” on national television is magnificent. I wanted more of this to build a texture.
Pettengill and editor Nels Bangerter make some weird decisions with the material they have. Why, for example, are there images of rockets being fired other than there and I assume they had the material. It seems completely out of place. There are moments that are like excerpts from something much more abstract or even experimental, but which seem out of place. Bangerter in particular has been able to make flawless films from stock footage like he did with Kirsten Johnson. Cameraman or propulsive by Jason Osder Let the fire burn. I’m not sure what they were trying to do here. A really neat short film would have been a more appropriate use of this material, perhaps emphasizing the riot fantasy in these young male participants, or perhaps reflecting on the angry young men of today and those of the Vietnam War era that were once shipped overseas but are now raging on the internet against Black Lives Matter. These are subjects that are bubbling on the edges of Riotville, United States but which the film seems eager to leave as ephemeral.
And none of that is helped by the score, a brooding, sonically murky mix of beeps and bloops and hums, ethereal hisses. I see such potential in the hardware, but I can’t help but feel that this is a movie that expects power because of the hardware rather than whatever it cinematically does with it. It is a film that is both obtuse and obvious. It is a polemic which stops net.
Exit: At the cinema from Friday 16e of September.
Reward possibilities: It’s proven otherwise popular, so I’d expect Critics’ Award nominations, but it’s not the kind of film that’s usually the Academy’s forte, so a shortlist would be a bit a surprise for me.