Review by Sean Boelman
Documentaries often use archive footage as a method of supplementing their storytelling, but there are some which instead exclusively feature those materials. Sierra Pettengill’s Riotsville, USA is one such documentary, and even though it is based on the past, its message is still eerily prescient and affecting.
The film explores a training ground on a U.S. military base in the 1960s to help law enforcement train to respond to the riots and protests happening in the era. It’s a story that just gets crazier and crazier as it unfolds. It’s just absurd to think that someone, somewhere along the line thought that this was something that should be done.
With what has transpired in the world over the past couple years in terms of racially-charged police brutality, this is an absolutely harrowing watch. It’s disheartening to see how the government has changed very little over more than fifty years, as they still have such a ridiculous response to anything that remotely threatens them.
There is almost a sense of humor to be found in the movie because of the absurdity of what we are seeing take place on screen. Viewers will be laughing uncomfortably as they watch soldiers “simulating” the rioters by smashing windows or carrying fridges out of facade storefronts in a way that absolutely no one acts in real life.
However, Pettengill contrasts this with the starkly violent images of what the police and military are training to do to these supposed “offenders”. The film leaves much to the imagination — as this is a training simulation, the intensity is toned down by a bit — but it’s not hard to fill in the gaps with memories of the real brutality that people of color have experienced then and in years since.
If the archive footage does have one significant limitation, it is the fact that it doesn’t really have an individual subject (or subjects) with whom the audience can identify. Rather, the audience connects with the overall movement. And while that doesn’t make the movie any less powerful, it does cause the film to be even more dependent on the viewer’s political leanings.
Then, in the last act, it begins to explore an instance in which the police and National Guard put into practice the training from these military base simulations — the 1968 riot in Miami. It’s a great way of setting the context for what the audience just saw, and hammering home the emotional impact.
Riotsville, USA takes a look at an unexpected topic and ties it into modern issues in a way that is genuinely affecting. It’s a documentary that will leave audiences with a feeling of disgust, but also with their eyes opened to the truth of the world as it is right now.
Riotsville, USA screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually from January 20-30.