Exclusive: Sundance NEXT Innovator Award nominee explores the history of America’s fake towns created to train riot police.
As police brutality and the militarization of law enforcement continue to be debated in the United States, it is increasingly important to investigate how those issues have shaped the nation’s past. “Riotsville USA,” Sierra Pettengill’s documentary exploring the model towns that were established in the 1960s to train police officers for violent confrontation with rioters, seeks to fill an essential gap in that discourse. The film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is currently gearing up for a September theatrical release, with the first trailer premiering today exclusively on IndieWire.
According to the official synopsis from Magnolia Pictures, “Riotsville, USA” tells the story of a turning point in American history where the protest movements of the late 1960s came into conflict with increasingly militarized police departments. Focusing on unearthed military training footage of Army-built model cities called “Riotsvilles,” where the military and police were trained to respond to civil unrest in the wake of the Kerner Commission created by President Lyndon B. Johnson, director Sierra Pettengill’s kaleidoscopic archival documentary traces the formation of a national consciousness obsessed with maintaining law and order by any means necessary. Drawing ideas from a time similar to ours, ‘Riotsville, United States‘ focuses on American institutional control and makes a compelling case that if America’s history of race rhymes, it’s by design.
“Sierra Pettengill’s riveting and disturbing archival documentary feels like viewing a Ken Burns movie through a kaleidoscope. Relying solely on remarkable pre-existing footage, Pettengill tells the story of the development of the US military’s riot management program in the late 1960s, formed in response to civil rights uprisings in cities across the country,” wrote IndieWire of Sundance.
Along with a star-studded group of contributors, including critic Tobi Haslett, who writes glowing and engaging commentary, and masterful editor Nels Bangerter, who has also worked with boundary-pushing documentary filmmakers Brett Storey and Kirsten Johnson, Pettengill regularly digs and prick through this footage, zooming in to the point of pixelation or blurring the edges around the figures to interrogate the meaning behind these moments.
“Riotsville, USA” opens in theaters on Friday, September 16. Check out the trailer exclusively on IndieWire below.