“I Don’t Want to Make Seamless Films”: Sierra Pettengill on Riotsville, USA
Where Sierra Pettengill’s previous all-archival film, The Reagan Show (co-directed with Pacho Velez), asked the question “How did we get here?” by re-examining the ’80s, her new feature Riotsville, USA goes back further, to the oft-examined period from roughly 1967 to 1968. As she explains in a press kit interview conducted by programmer Nellie Killian (also credited as a researcher on the film), the project originated when, while reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, Pettengill grew curious about what, exactly, might have happened at the titular sites. “I Googled [“Riotsville”] and I didn’t find much of anything—and for me, as an archival researcher, that’s just the bait I need to keep going,” Pettengill says. “I found a listing in the National Archives catalog that sounded like it might be right, but it had no real information and hadn’t been digitized. So I borrowed some funds from another project, and ordered a transfer of that footage, pretty blind.”
The freshly rediscovered footage is an unnerving and trippy Thing That Should Not Be: Built on army bases, with soldiers standing in for protesters, these alternate-reality anytowns hosted implausible riots, from opening peaceful protests to closing mass arrests, all staged for the presumable edification of bleachers full of beaming military and police officials. From the eerie starting point of this footage, Pettengill reconsiders the legacy of the Kerner Commission, whose 1968 report on riots and their causes delivered hard truths about the prevalence and normalization of racism in American society. Despite its blunt conclusions and recommendations, the only part of the report to be acted on was the section recommending equipment and tactics for riot control: Another startling piece of unearthed footage shows an ABC reporter’s outtakes while seeing an early riot-control tank in action in a field—an image whose goofiness belies its consequentiality as a grim harbinger of the normalization of police militarization.
Working with editor Nels Bangalter, Pettengill errs on the side of letting her archival rediscoveries breathe at extended length, recontextualizing them further with the help of poetically inflected narration written by Tobi Haslett. I spoke with her prior to the film’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Filmmaker: I know a disproportionate number of people who have read Nixonland over the last decade, and as an inveterate Nixonian I was pleased to see the great man himself make an appearance at the end. The book proposes a very specific thesis which is in the title, which is: we basically got here because of Richard Nixon. He’s a figure that you end with as part of footage shot at the 1968 RNC in Miami Beach, but not necessarily the person that you indict.
Pettengill: I guess I should say, for clarity, that the thesis of Nixonland, and the path he traces, is not my path. I was reading that during The Reagan Show, so it was for different purposes. The thing that really resonates with me about Rick Perlstein is that he comes from an archival place. He is not just pulling from an expected set of resources; he’s constantly trying to find, you know, “Letters to the Editor” in Reader’s Digest, searching for all these ways to reflect the consciousness of a nation. It’s that mosaic way of storytelling, rather than some sort of top-down account, that really resonated with me. It’s all primary sources located within the time period, which I think is how I approach my films.
It was really important to me in this film, and in the last few, to not indict a person, much less a politician, as being to blame for all the ills of society. In Riotsville, I tried—in a way that felt oftentimes overly ambitious, actually—to try to bring in every system: We’re indicting the media, public-private partnerships, corporate interests, the ways that citizens get pulled into this as individuals. So, Nixon is obvious, and he’s the loudest screamer of law and order, or the one that we remember the most potently. But this is not a film about Nixon, it’s not a film about LBJ. It’s trying to shift the perspective from being top-down into… I don’t know, have you ever seen that David Hockney film, A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China, where he is comparing two Chinese scrolls both tracing the Emperor’s path across China? One reflects the influence of Western perspective, which is single point, and the other is axonometric. I don’t think that film is really telling things from an omniscient perspective, but it’s one that allows you to be in the mix of things rather than standing outside it.
Filmmaker: When I read those Perlstein books, I look at the citations in the notes, and I get that what he’s done is the equivalent of going down a k-hole and finding every single source for something, then selecting the single best quote from each one. It’s kind of insane how much stuff he’s ingested to just get that one perfect quote.
Pettengill: Yeah! And that’s my process as well, and that’s why my films take so long, which I think, at this point, I’ve just given into. I want to turn over every stone before I stop.
Filmmaker: How much wide-ranging stuff did you watch, and when did you decide to narrow your focus to include only military and/or broadcast television footage?
Pettengill: The wide range of things I was watching for this versus the more narrow range of footage selected are vastly different. I’m really influenced by ’60s radical cinema formally and structurally, but I have a resistance to using that material for a lot of reasons. So, it’s hard for me to distinguish between what I was watching as primary source material for inclusion in the films versus what I was watching as a set of influences. Like, Aldo Tambellini’s The Day Before the Moon Landing was one of the more influential things I saw mid-way through the edit.
The decision to only use military and network news footage comes from at least three different impulses. One is to try to capture a national mood and find material that would, or could have been, pretty broadly seen—the amount of military footage in the film is pretty limited. A lot of that Riotsville footage that we used was shot by ABC and BBC. So, for the most part, everything that’s shown in this film was shown before and comes from fairly mainstream outlets. That’s important to me on a second level: I’m doing investigative work in some ways. But I think there is this idea that revealing a hidden secret of what the U.S. government was up to that no one knew, or [what] a massive corporation was up to behind the scenes, is obviously important, but there’s something equally important to me about rebroadcasting what we already knew as a nation. This is part of the public record, and has either been forgotten or contextualized in a different way than I want to contextualize it.
The third [impulse] is that—especially because it’s the form of film and media I’m most interested in and consume most readily—I have a real hesitance towards reusing films shot from within communities, or within activist movements, or by organizers. It’s a level of respect in some way. I feel like I have the right to state-owned media and television media, and we do as citizens, so the ethical implications of that are easier for me. This is a film about reaction, as our narrator says late in the film—about massive, powerful forces reacting to protest movements, and the power structures you can find within archives mirror those power imbalances. Putting two sets of unequal footage side by side always causes problems for me. They’re not equivalent, and putting them in a linear timeline feels like either a failure or an insult when I try to do that.
Filmmaker: When did you arrive at the decision to have a voiceover, and is the voiceover in part an attempt to solve these power imbalance problems?
Pettengill: So, I worked on this from 2015 to 2020 just in research development, cutting scenes myself or with friends. We started the edit in August 2020, and a few months before that I decided the film needed a narrator. And thinking about a narrator as an abstract concept, and thinking about who would be writing those, were a joint decision. I didn’t come up with an idea of a narrator and then shop around for a person—I wanted Tobi Haslett. Reading Tobi’s work kind of helped me envision what role that could play in the film.
For me, the narrator does a lot of things. One is placing us, as viewers and filmmakers, outside of 1968, because we are. I enjoy watching films that are an archival immersion, but I think they place us somewhere very confusing in a historical narrative, where you’re given to think that you have access to all the context of the time you’re in. This film is a reflection of my own wrestling with the legacy of the ’60s, but also what I see in a lot of the people around me and a larger cultural conversation: what do we do with this time? How do we make sense of it and what does it mean? Since I always knew the film was going to be all archival in terms of the visual content, a narrator seemed like the right fit for that voice of separation and time distance. It’s also a way of trying to counter the violence in the footage. We don’t show any actual violence except towards the very end. It was a really early decision that we weren’t going to show any riot footage. All of the images in the film, I think, have a lot of implicit or structural violence in them, and there’s a lot of poetry to the narration. Tobi’s a really beautiful writer, so that hopefully counteracts some of that violence.
Filmmaker: Was the decision to not show the violence intended as a counter to hegemonic narratives of violence and not wanting to reinforce those? And how did that collaboration with Tobi work?
Pettengill: There is obviously a very long history of riot imagery being used towards, explicitly or implicitly, reinforcing an image of Black violence. It also is so familiar when you’re thinking about riots in 1968. A lot of that has been seen and seen again and again, and one of the goals in this film was to try to show material that felt new, even if it had been broadcast. Also, there’s a lot of questions about what looking at that violent imagery does—those are people who are not consenting to being filmed, [so] there’s too many ethical questions in that for me. Showing [the protests in] Miami was something that evolved out of hoping that by that point in the film we had demonstrated our perspective on how you should be looking at that material, and there’s lot of echoes in every frame of that Miami section of scenes you’ve seen played out in various ways in the 85 minutes that precede it. Also—this is a Martha Rosler idea, or that’s where it came to me from—when you’re looking at archival material, you lose the specificity of who is in these images, why they’re there, and you’re led to make assumptions. That’s something that I’m under no illusions that I, as a filmmaker, am special enough to be able to control.
As far as Tobi, it was hyper collaborative. The whole edit of the film, unfortunately, was during the most intense period of COVID and lockdowns. I was in New York; Tobi was, at the time, living up in Harlem, Nels was in Oakland, and we did everything over Zoom. I just left it on for eight hours a day for most of the edit process. Tobi and I started by exchanging reading materials. I had sent him all of what I had been referencing for the film so far, mostly straight historical sources, then he sent me a bunch of things to read, and we went back and forth that way. Then he watched every cut of the film, and Nels and I determined the sections where voiceover could go. We made these six separate chunks, which I think mostly stayed intact in the final film. Then we would get on these really epically long conversations and talk through what should be said there, where references come from for each given section. Tobi would go write and send us something and I would send notes back to him.
Filmmaker: As far as the choice of Charlene Modeste to be narrator: you haven’t, I think, recorded voiceover before. What was that audition process like, if there was one, and did you spend a lot of time obsessing about mic-ing and voice inflection and all that kind of thing?
Pettengill: Nels, Tobi and I had decided the voice of the film is best served by a chorus, because as we were writing, we’re like, “Well, who is this voice? What perspective is it from?” It’s written by Tobi, but it’s not, you know, “I, Tobi, in my…” It’s not him as a persona, and we decided that it was best through whatever voice felt appropriate for a section, and those changed. Sometimes it’s more sarcastic, sometimes it’s more straight ahead. So, our first versions of the film, we recorded with eight different voices. Tobi was one of them, Hannah Gross was another, my friend Sheila Heti was another, the artist Corinne Spencer was another. Formally and conceptually, that felt right to us. Then, after using those recordings and living with that version of the film for a long time, a lot of the feedback we were getting was that it was hard to—the text of the voiceover is fairly dense, it takes a lot of attention and listening, and having a new narrator pop up every 15 minutes is jolting. In the time it takes you to catch up to who you’re listening to and trying to figure out why a new voice is talking to you, you’ve lost a lot of the text. It’s one of those moments where a conceptual idea hits against the reality of the film that you’re making. So, fairly last minute we decided to replace all those voices with a single voice. One of our executive producers is a voiceover artist, Charlene was an actress that she knew, and when we heard her audition, there was this mix of weariness and strength and anger. That felt like the tone of the film: a little exhausted, a little angry.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the moments of the film where glitch elements are layered on static images? I don’t know if some of those are Nels’s interventions, because I remember that the upside down moon in The Hottest August was one of his ideas.
Pettengill: Nels is an incredible wizard, an amazing editor and also he loves After Effects, so he’s the technical author of all of those. He made those sequences, which I find pretty incredible because each one feels like a really unique intervention unto itself. But Nels and I had decided fairly early that the voiceover sections were all going to be digitally intervened, and that came out of talking through Hito Steyerl and what the degradation of an image can bring to it. All of those voiceover sections are, in some degree, about trying to make sense of what’s being seen and represented, and having a kind of digital fingerprint all over them felt important. Because for the rest of the archival in the film, it is fairly durational. There’s not much intercutting of sources, and that’s obviously pretty deliberate. Each source has a lot of importance to me: who’s shooting the footage, where it comes from. I think there can be a lack of fingerprinting when you’re editing that way, and these sections are our opportunity to have our hands in it. This film is obviously about a lot of things, but it is also about the process of archival filmmaking. We gave a fair amount of kind of footnoting to sources and copyright laws at one point. The digital intervention was not trying to ignore that these images are coming to us through a lot of sets of processes. They don’t just arrive pristine, they’re not plucked out of nowhere. And, you know, the quality of the archival in the rest of the film also changes, and I was pretty into embracing that. I’m not really after pristine transfers.
Filmmaker: There are certain moments throughout this, certainly Reagan Show as well, where somebody dunks on themselves and you have the opportunity to take advantage of that. I’m not really a big fan of the idea that you have to ignore those kinds of moments and balance things out and be fair. You’re making a film that’s polemical already. What kind of discussions do you have with yourself about what is and what isn’t fair game to include? Is there anything that ever is like, “Oh, that’s too easy?”
Pettengill: Is there a section that you’re referring to specifically?
Filmmaker: One thing that popped out at me, because you mentioned this publication earlier, is the police officer who cites Reader’s Digest as an authority. But I think there’s probably a lot of moments like that throughout the movie where we are dealing with a clearly buffoonish authority figure.
Pettengill: I was thinking of those moments less in terms of, like, “Is this being fair to the individual in question?” and more in terms of the ways that the conversation about police brutality and policing of minority communities, and the regard for what all that means, is oftentimes treated like an absurdity. That’s the rub of the film in the Riotsville sections in particular. And so, trying to build a film where that absurdity is allowed to play out—every time there is an absurdity like that, there is its counterimage in the real world. The tank demonstration, I think, is one of the best examples of that. This is a private entrepreneur who has decided to make tanks, because there’s a sudden influx of money available from the federal government following the Kerner commission to pay for these. He stages a demonstration, which is basically a trade fair PR move. ABC News comes to cover it as if it’s straight news. The machine is launched in the middle of this bucolic field full of flowers and birds. There’s many layers of abstraction from what its actual use is in the world, and the ABC reporter is half treating it as a joke. The thing makes this ridiculous sound. Then, at the end of the film, you see that exact tank arrive in Miami and poisoning the residents of Liberty City. So, the callousness that comes with that absurdity, as contrasted with the real-world implications, was our way of thinking through those sections.
Filmmaker: Your movie shows its archival work in a lot of ways, like noting where there isn’t sound to go with footage of protesters speaking—which then becomes a metaphor about the taking away of voices, but it’s also quite literal. The sound isn’t there. But there’s some foley in there. So, what’s the relationship between archival integrity and building that environment out?
Pettengill: I feel like a broken record, but it really is dependent on the source that you’re looking at. There’s tons of foley in this film, and there’s a beautiful extensive sound mix. I worked with this guy, Leandros Ntounas, and we were building out really complex soundscapes. The question is towards what ends. We talked a lot about, how do you enhance silence? How do you make silence audible? The scratches and the pops, and the sound of tape running, is the soundscape of that silence. It’s enhancing something towards the ends that reflect your intention with that scene, and I think by showing our hand so often in the film, by letting you know what the sources are, by letting you know what the context for a lot of the shooting is, it’s staying true to the feeling. I’m not a purist, you know? I’m not trying to represent something precisely as it was received. It’s enhancing whatever qualities of it we are trying to lean into. That’s part of the reason I can’t make seamless films. I don’t want to make seamless films. There feels like there’s less dishonesty if you’re showing a lot of your cracks and seams and decision making, without it being about me. Because it’s not about me as an author; it’s about, in part, what it is to try to take material from the past and work with it in the present.
Filmmaker: You listen to a lot of music, and you’re very familiar with ambient and drone music. Did you find yourself listening to a lot of room tones and empty rooms?
Pettengill: Well, I mean, my experience of COVID-19 was living alone, and I had a really, really big studio in the Brooklyn Army Terminal for most of the edit process but I was also alone there. Aren’t we all living with room tone all the time now? Room tone is coursing through my head. The Zoom algorithm flattens sound out. It’s removing background noise, and that was a confusing and eerie part of the filmmaking process. I don’t know what Nels’s room tone is.