In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson instigated the Kerner Commission, a wide-ranging investigation into the causes of the numerous civil uprisings in the US that marked the ’60s. The commission’s findings were some of the bluntest realism on race and class to come from an official mouthpiece of the government. Unambiguously, it found that racism and inequality were the root of social unrest, and that only institutional reform could address this. Instead, over the following decades, the US poured more and more money into police departments, leading to our current dystopian moment.
To that end, in 1968 the military opened “Riotsville,” a model town built as a staging ground for simulated uprisings. There, soldiers and police officers would be trained in anti-riot tactics. In the voluminous footage captured by the government and newscasters, we see authorities develop the kind of viciousness still implemented against protestors today. This footage forms the basis for Riotsville, USA, a sobering new documentary from director Sierra Pettengill. Pettengill, who is experienced in diving into the archive for essayistic films like The Reagan Show or her short The Rifleman, sharply contrasts the imagery from Riotsville with material from the Kerner Commission and imagery from the rest of the ’60s, contextualizing the historical significance of these exercises in a subtle but damning way. Hyperallergic sat down with Pettengill over Zoom to discuss how she accrued this material and then put it together. This interview has been edited and condensed for time and clarity.
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Hyperallergic: What led you to discover Riotsville?
Sierra Pettengill: I was reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, and he was tracing, amongst other things, the rise in public fervor for law and order in 1967 and 1968. He put together this laundry list of ways that fervor could be filled — one of them was training department store managers for evacuation in case of riots. In that list was Riotsville, which was only briefly described. I did a quick Google search, because it sounded crazy, and I didn’t find anything. And I felt like I needed to push a little further. As an archival researcher, I know that there’s never nothing, so I found a listing in the National Archives that sounded like it might fit, but the footage hadn’t been digitized. So I did a blind transfer, and when I saw the footage (this was six years ago now), I was struck by it on lots of different levels.
Since there was no information readily available, I needed to figure out what it was in a pretty literal context, how what was in the footage fit into the rebellions of the ’60s, who orchestrated these exercises and paid for them and all those things. In a larger sense, it felt rare to get this kind of direct visual of the way the state perceived protestors and this moment — and so theatrically staged, as well. It needed to be a feature instead of a short because I didn’t want Riotsville to feel like just another beat in any number of disturbing beats from US history. Only a feature could give the proper context, which involved the media, the Vietnam War, the context of the Kerner Commission, and more broadly how images function in a carceral state.
H: You mentioned you had to digitize much of this footage blind?
SP: Yeah. The first round of footage I got was from the military, so it’s public domain, and yeah, it had never been digitized, so I had to have it transferred. But I don’t want that to imply that there was a sort of secrecy surrounding Riotsville. There was a fair amount of coverage contemporaneously in newspapers like the New York Times. I found more footage as time went on, a lot of which came from ABC News, which shot there as well. There’s a mix of military-authored footage and news-media-authored footage. The idea of discovering a secret history is appealing, I guess, but here it’s more a case of ignorance and bad historical memory. That this was a public program that wasn’t hidden and was captured on the news is actually much more damning, to me. There hadn’t been much scholarly interest or full exploration of Riotsville until a few years ago. Stuart Schrader wrote a great book that includes it.
H: It sounds like the military material didn’t do much to contextualize the visuals. Besides the raw footage, what is included in the National Archives?
SP: There’s military records of provisions, this intense data-driven textual information. There are really detailed lists of what kind of weapons are being provided. There’s a list of people who were attending the course, since it was part of this larger training exercise. And it records which police departments are coming, of course. I went to the National Archives and went through all of that as well, and spent a lot of time with a researcher tracking down and interviewing whoever we could find who was in the recreations, the camerapeople who shot them and such. Over 10,000 police and soldiers attended these trainings just in ’68 and ’69. It was pretty sprawling. The research took a lot of different directions, since those records weren’t complete enough to paint a full picture, certainly not a cinematic picture.
H: You interlace this footage with better-known events. What led you to the other material you use, and what guided what else you put in?
SP: The research project was similar to those for my other films, which is that I don’t stop researching until it’s done. We’ve been asked how much footage we had, and I’m like, well, at which point? There was never a moment when I turned to my editor and said, ‘Here it is, Nels. Here’s everything I have. Best of luck.’ It was an ongoing process. At some point we did decide to limit what’s in the film to what had been broadcast on television or recorded by the military. That felt like an important conceptual and political point, that this is public history. There’s a rich tradition of community-authored activist films, or those great pieces by radical collectives in the ’60s. We were watching and looking at and thinking about those, but they operated in a very different fashion, and collapsing them under an archival umbrella with the voices of the establishment felt too unspecific. Those movements and that material deserve their own context. The material I found encompassed the major four news networks and also a lot of local television (particularly in the Miami section, which came from an incredibly rich archive at Miami Dade College).
H: What about what didn’t make it in?
SP: I’d still love to make something from this. There was a Colonel Turner, one of the top brass of the program, who I read about in Stuart Schrader’s book. During the Chicago riots, he seized weapons from protestors and gun stores, and said he was doing so to use them in Riotsville. Instead he either put them in his personal collection or sold them for profit, and he became part of this big corruption trial. I kind of loved and despised the disgusting cynicism of that; it’s something you see in the Riotsville exercises, where the military is taking guns out of stores and throwing them in their tanks, trying to clear the area of weapons. There’s some footage of him from that trial. But there wasn’t enough to make it work. Another official went on a press tour where he was trying to claim that mace doesn’t bother anyone. He was spraying himself in the face on television. It’s endless, the depravity of policing in America. That was the problem when making this film. Everything is so fucked up, so if you go too far down even one path, you could get lost.
H: The Riotsville exercises are essentially giant performances. You’re experienced in archival practice, but were there any influences on how you looked at these performances through your film’s eye?
SP: Peter Watkins is probably the most obvious filmmaker, and not just Punishment Park. La Commune is a film I find really influential, it encompasses performance and also media as performance. There’s also a film by Harun Farocki called How to Live in the FRG. It collects all this footage of civilian populations rehearsing different things, these training courses. There’s a birthing class, a car crash test, this incessant effort to be prepared for the emergency of reality. And that felt like a a good way of summarizing riots. Tobi Haslett, who wrote the film’s narration, guided it a lot as well. He and I talked about Yvonne Rainer, and her approach to performance in film. I think that since Riotsville is being scripted and performed, it’s like a new architecture composed by the government that requires a self-aware film. The essay form felt like it was necessary for this.
H: What’s it like to study such a volume of detail-heavy footage to find these important moments of performance to zero in on?
SP: The film took six years to make for a reason. Working with [editor] Nels Bangerter was an incredible experience. He has a keen eye, and a lot of it was finding these moments that have this tension between the performance and reality; you know them when you see them. One thing I noticed was how each Riotsville exercise opens. It’s meant to replicate people being uneasy, crowds gathering on the street. So you see the actors walking at this incredibly slow, zombie pace, this sort of amateur stuff. One moment that struck me happened with the men on the bleachers, who are high-ranking military brass, government officials, police chiefs. They’re watching as a Black protestor is getting arrested, and they all break into laughter. It’s deeply chilling and telling.
There was this constant conversation about what moments stand out, and what the corollary in the real world would be. So those moments in Riotsville when they simulate snipers among the rioters shooting authorities … There’s this lie of the sniper in a rebellion, which was debunked over and over. Since the military is going through the motions of preparing soldiers and police for a false situation, that was an obvious one.