Riotsville, USA review – disquieting study of police tactics to deal with social unrest | Film

As if in a seance or hypnotic trance, Sierra Pettengill conjures the ambient voices of the riot-torn United States in the 1960s, traumatised by the uproar in Watts, Chicago, Newark and Detroit. She curates archive TV discussion show clips and newsreel footage of the times, including some quite extraordinary contemporary reports about the “Riotsville” imitation towns that the US army built to practise anti-riot techniques. These were complete with audience bleachers in which an invited crowd of military brass could approvingly watch a full-scale re-enactment of the Watts riot – a bizarre theatrical fantasy in which the disorder was swiftly and efficiently brought under control. (Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber’s 2008 film Full Battle Rattle discussed the fake Iraqi town built in the Mojave Desert for very similar reasons.)

Pettengill also shows us TV reports on Lyndon B Johnson’s Kerner commission which was tasked with looking into the causes of the riots, but whose findings resulted chiefly in increased federal funding for the police. The authorities were obsessed with the largely illusory threats of “snipers”, whose supposed presence justified police and army intrusions and attacks on private property. She shows us earnest but intensely angry discussion shows aired by PBL, the Public Broadcast Laboratory (a precursor to PBS) which ventilated the rage felt by African Americans over civil rights, and was shut down when its sponsor, the Ford Foundation, withdrew funding.

There is something eerie and uncanny in these broadcasts, particularly from the Republican convention in Miami Beach in 1968, in which the presenters will cursorily report on deaths and disorder outside the convention hall, but then listlessly return to the dull official proceedings and then, when that is simply too torpid, air another ad from the station sponsor. This film is obviously comparable to the work of Adam Curtis and there’s also a weird but very relevant resemblance to Peter Watkins’s films, particularly the dystopian satire Punishment Park from 1971. A shiver of disquiet runs right through it.

Riotsville, USA is released on 31 March in UK and Irish cinemas and on digital platforms.

( Information from was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

Share to...