IT LOOKS LIKE AN IDEAL SMALL TOWN with an ideal Main Street. Hand-painted signs outside the Cut-Rate Supermarket advertise specials on white potatoes, canned hams, and cottage cheese, and a US Army recruitment office banner flies outside City Hall. The camera pans across a row of storefronts—The Fashion Shop, United Tobacco Shop, Corner Drugs—and you notice the flimsiness of the construction, the cardboard walls, the sheet-plastic windows. Your sense of scale becomes confused—are we in the colorful, miniature-model neighborhood of Mister Rogers?—until a lone motorcyclist rides across Main Street’s gravelly, unpaved road. The camera zooms in on the liquor store’s roof: a single soldier with a helmet and gas mask is propped, rifle at the ready.
The make-believe town that lends its name to Sierra Pettengill’s Riotsville, USA is many things: a playground, a theater, a vision of the future. Built in the mid-1960s in response to the wave of civil unrest that had recently convulsed Watts, Newark, Detroit, and beyond, the town we see was one of several simulacra of the American city, housed on military bases, that served as facilities in which law enforcement could replicate and respond to similar uprisings through the use of staged reenactments and imagined scenarios—that is, “preenactments.” Scale and scalability, then, are crucial for Riotsville, just as they are for Mister Rogers: These places are intended to stand in for something much larger than themselves. As made plain by the film’s eloquent, simmering voice-over narration (written by Tobi Haslett), Riotsville, USA, is Anytown, USA, and its never-ending dream of rebellion—continually quashed by an increasingly militarized police force—is one that very much informs, even creates, our present reality. Like Borges’s proverbial map, it is the representation that grows to cover and supersede the territory it is intended to describe.
Despite its title, the film doesn’t restrict itself to the history and histrionics of the various iterations of Riotsville. While many filmmakers would be tediously expository in this regard, Pettengill tactfully resists dwelling on the town’s rather overdetermined form of security theater. In any case, there seems to be scant footage available, and little information about the precise number of facilities, the duration of their respective lifetimes, and the precise function of the footage that documented them. Nor is the film a paean to lost revolutionary promise. Rueful tone-poems about the lost promise of 1960s struggle form a kind of subgenre of leftist documentary, but this film is more interested in the reverse shot. We have not sojourned too long in Riotsville before we’re back out in the world that it purports to represent—or, perhaps, another simulacrum: the suburban home. Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1967 speech calling for unity in a time of civil unrest is met, under the hot lights of a mobile TV crew, with mostly approving nods from a small group of middle-class heterosexual married couples, some Black, some white. Here, we see how the press models a different kind of scalability: that of public opinion. Media, in this form, don’t so much mediate as create proportional representations, manageable snapshots of “public opinion” that can stand in for the vox populi. As each member of the small group is queried about their reactions to Johnson’s speech, we can observe at least one withering glare or half-suppressed eye roll from a Black interviewee in the background.
Archival documentaries, including Pettengill’s film, are not immune to these issues of scalability. All too often, archival images are mobilized to address or represent unwieldy generalities (“the ’60s,” “protest,” “war”) rather than the specificities of what they actually document. The question is the extent to which one image can stand in for another, and the film continually frames and reframes its images—in the Academy ratio of 1960s documentary and in the twenty-first century’s digital widescreen—to ask this question in different ways. “The footage of ’60s rebellion has traveled a long way to meet us, and at least it seems to prove something,” the voice-over proposes. “But there are dangers: a picture can become a stereotype, or be cleverly conscripted to this or that project, dogma, lie.”
But isn’t generalization—if not quite lies and dogma—a given of every archival documentary? Offsetting the skeptical erudition of the voice-over, more straightforward title cards periodically narrate defining moments of the late ’60s, offering a new perspective on a recognizable past: the King assassination, the Chicago Democratic National Convention protests of 1968, the less publicized RNC in Miami Beach that same year. With this latter event—or, rather, NBC’s coverage of it—the film frames another microcosm of the ecology of the people, the state, and the mainstream news media, which obscures and outright misrepresents the reasons for protest in the nearby Black community of Liberty City—namely, unequal resources and representation—reserving its enthusiasm for the riot’s casualties, the pomp of a convention that solidified Nixon’s nomination, and, of course, the broadcast’s sponsor, Gulf Oil. Like Riotsville, the RNC offers a compressed image of “what reaction looks like”—“revolution and repression trapped in a single film frame.” Unlike the preponderance of archival documentaries, these images, set to a skittery electroacoustic score by Jace Clayton, are not simply mixtape fodder, chopped and screwed to land a quick point, but are left to play out. We can sit with the materiality and the awkwardness of their construction. We can watch as the anchors’ distracted coverage of protests in Liberty City segues into a commercial for Gulf insect spray and its fantasies of domestic peace achieved through small-scale annihilation.
This fantasy—one of prevention, perfectibility, and preparedness—is Riotsville’s true theme, and its principal irony resides in the way the documentary’s own mechanics are entangled with its construction. It is no coincidence that reenactment—a crucial device of nonfiction cinema—and its speculative analogue, preenactment, drive the Riotsville project. From the 1920 mass restaging of the storming of the Winter Palace on the third anniversary of the Bolshevik victory to contemporary rehearsals of battles from the Civil War and America’s war in Vietnam, reenactment is a device through which to revisit, contend with, and even revise complex histories. Archival documentaries like Riotsville—and other cultural endeavors, such as The Battle of Orgreave (2001), Jeremy Deller’s epic recreation of a 1984 clash between English miners and police—also render the past as an immersive sphere of agency and action.
Crucial to Riotsville, USA is the insight that the future can be subject to much the same treatment. Nathan Fielder is not the first to neurotically obsess over possible outcomes and eventualities. Nearly the entire filmography of Peter Watkins is concerned with dominion over history as well as what’s to come—the state’s, the media’s, the people’s. Riotsville eerily preenacts the British director’s Punishment Park (1971), itself a prophetic preenactment in which anti-war and anti-racist protesters face justice in the form of a capture-the-flag game against law enforcement in Death Valley, California. This fight for the future became violently present when real antagonism broke out between the nonactors Watkins had cast, in many cases, according to their actual political alignments and social roles: activists as prisoners, law enforcement as prison guards. There, too, simulation became reality. Riotsville’s simple exercise, undertaken in the name of “preparedness,” is really about determining who sets the future’s terms and conditions—or else, in Mark Fisher’s phrase, initiates its “slow cancellation.”
Riotsville, USA opens at New York’s Film Forum on September 16.