By Stephanie Ornelas
It’s time to talk about race in America. Director W. Kamau Bell (We Need to Talk About Cosby) sat down with the creators of RIOTSVILLE, USA (via Zoom) for a panel discussion: RIOTSVILLE, USA – Race, Media, and Policing in America sponsored by XRM Media during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The group talked about the intense documentary and the overall process of finding the critical archives it centers. They shared a powerful discussion that looks back at a time similar to our own, and revisited the archival footage of unprecedented protest movements of the late 1960s.
The documentary is a poetic reflection with a furious tone on the reaction of a nation’s citizens and institutions to the rebellions of the late 1960s. The film is artistic and riveting, and consists entirely of archival footage that was shot by the United States military or appeared on broadcast television.
But instead of watching from the point of view from the rebellions in Chicago, Newark, and Detroit, the film sees it from a different perspective and hones in on dug-up military training footage of Army-built model towns called “Riotsvilles,” where military and police were trained to respond (aggressively) to domestic civil disorder.
Watching the three panelists engage, you would think you’re among friends, as they casually and candidly shared their own thoughts about the documentary — even comparing it to an actual horror film.
“Riotsvilles are basically Hollywood sets set up to look like “inner cities” (using air quotes) where they would have actors pretend to be rioting as a training exercise for how to crush the protests,” explains Kamau.
“But when you watch [the footage], they just seem absurd. It’s like a horror movie. The state protestors are pretending to be dead and they’re smiling, clearly they’re having fun with this.”
Finding the footage would be an experience in itself for director Sierra Pettengill, who explains that it was not only the amount of footage she came across that alarmed her, but it was also the fact that no one had been reporting on it. Creating the film would mean taking it all in and truly understanding what it all represents, she says.
“I do a lot of work with archival material for my own films and other people’s projects and there’s this experience you get going through archival footage,” says Pettengill.
“The quantity of footage we went through for this [project] was so massive. We had to try and make sense of how this all fits together, and how to be reflective of a time period, especially one that feels so familiar,” she adds.
“I had read mention of it briefly in a book I was reading for another project, and I googled it and found pretty much nothing. That’s the step I love. So I kept pushing, and I found a record in the national archives catalog that sounded like it might be right so I ordered a transfer of the footage and when it came, “I said, WHAT is this!?”
It then raised all kinds of questions that would soon lead to a mind-blowing feature documentary and many conversations to follow.
“On one hand, we’re tracing the very specific history, but the larger questions were more, What does this do metaphorically? What does this say about how we treat protests and how we treat Black communities?”
The group talked about the idea of art and poetry as they explored the “quiet anger” that rests throughout the tone of the film, something that was truly made possible thanks to screenwriter Tobi Haslett.
“Here are a bunch of images and sounds from a period that everybody thinks they already understand,” says Haslett.
“We had to construct an argument that would resonate with the present day but also do justice to the weirdness and in some ways the over-familiarity of 60s riot footage.”
Access the entire panel discussion on YouTube!