Tuesday 18 April 2023

On demand: "Riotsville, U.S.A."

Go to Riotsville, U.S.A. for the archive. Director Sierra Pettengill has excavated an hour and a half of remarkable, revealing footage from the late 1960s, that time of immense American turbulence, but she begins with eerie shots of a chipboard Main Street, hastily constructed at a Virginia military base in 1967 for the purposes of training riot police in quelling civil disobedience and violent unrest. As the history books show, for at least the next couple of years, they well needed the practice. At first, the footage is funny: soldiers drafted in to play civilians on their days off, staging mock raids on mock pawnbrokers and liquor stores, like kids playing Cowboys and Indians, only they do so before a crowd of onlookers - military top brass, by the looks of it - who applaud at the end of every cleanly achieved, casualty-free mission. Sensing the proximity of the cameras (and thus the big time) or just a rare opportunity to let off steam and razz their superiors, some of the troops playing protestors give it the full Cagney ("I'll be back, officer!"). As theatre of the absurd goes, it's pretty much unbeatable. Yet the more Pettengill lingers on these images, the more they exude an uncanny chill: what we're really looking at, of course, is the extent to which the state was prepared to go so as to crush dissent, re-impose control, and thereby maintain at least the illusion of a fair and just America operating for the benefit of all.

For the authorities, such roleplaying was but the blueprint for what the film interprets as a latter-day police state: post-1967, more money was funnelled towards reinforcing the long and baton-taser-and-gun-wielding arm of the law than ever went towards narrowing the gap between rich and poor. (That's one reason it may be time to defund the police: like many of those they've been paid to defend over the years, they've had it very good for so long.) For Pettengill, however, the footage is the basis of a cinematic what-if: a considered pause for thought that asks what might have happened had the powers-that-be properly listened to what the communities of Watts, Detroit and Liberty City were saying, and acted to address the inequalities the rioters were railing against. (Underlying insinuation: that America today would look very different.) Crucially, this isn't some radical back-projection: many of the underlying issues were being thrashed out at the time by players who sensed the urgency and transformative potential of the moment. Pettengill has the clips of TV talkshows to prove it, stitched in here with all their interstitials intact, as if to demonstrate how genteel much of the discourse was, or how easily the media had fallen into bed with exactly that capital those goon squads were being drilled to protect. She has a particular eye for material that was surely commissioned as cosy-jolly One Show-style filler, but which now comes off as casually horrendous: a clip, say, of a room of exclusively white housewives being schooled in how to shoot rioters. (Again: different times, you might say, except that truly different times would be those in which Trayvon Martin still walked amongst us.) Some of Pettengill's other choices struck this viewer as a little less effective. Once again, we're left with one of those dreamily speculative voiceovers that are becoming a documentary tic (read: potential source of irritation); and the first half has been rather more punchily edited than the second, which pores at length over the political conventions of 1968, and - through billowing clouds of tear gas - spots how the theory of Riotsville was eventually applied to the real world. At their strongest, though, the film's images seem to leap fifty years in time: they speak for themselves anew.

Riotsville, U.S.A. is available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player, YouTube and Dogwoof on Demand.

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