Following the long, hot summer of 1967, the U.S. Army built a series of mock towns called “Riotsville,” serving as training grounds for military and police on how to deal with civil unrest at home. The trainings went hand in hand with demonstrations to stakeholders, photographed and filmed by the military.
“What are we looking at?” asks the narrator (Charlene Modeste) of Riotsville, USA. Ask yourself the same throughout. Is this the past? The present? Could this police state be our future?
One point of interest for director Sierra Pettengill’s scintillating documentary is the development and use of tear gas as a form of crowd control and riot mitigation. In one instance, police used so much tear gas that Miami demonstrators had to go home just for a breath of fresh air. This was the same tear gas soldiers used in the Vietnam War—a violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol. When that charge was levied at the U.S., the military pointed out that local police use it all the time to great effect.
Composed entirely of archival footage shot in the late-1960s, Riotsville uses text on-screen, narration, and televised debates to paint a picture of a second nation existing parallel to the familiar narrative of the ’60s counter-culture, summer of love, and space race. It feels like something out of George Orwell or Ray Bradbury. You could watch Riotsville, USA and think: “This is how we got here.” The better response might be: “How the hell are we still here?” Now streaming on Hulu.
The above blurb first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 30, No. 9, “Drama of the real.”
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