Sundance Review: Riotsville, USA

Military training

The 1960s was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States of America. The post-war economic boom may have surged across the country but that didn’t mean it benefited all Americans.  Historical racial tensions, which dated back to the time of slavery, bubbled to the surface, especially in the South. Poverty and social inequality fanned the flames with the Newark Riots spreading to major cities across the nation in 1967.

As the mass unrest continued in 1968, the authorities had a decision to make. Do they listen to these concerns and make major changes to society or do they respond with force to suppress any dissent and maintain the status quo? The decision was sadly all too predictable. One of the stranger outcomes was Riotsville – a fake town created by the military in order to practice dealing with civil disturbances. It forms the basis for Riotsville, USA.

Using a rich and varied array of archival footage, Riotsville, USA is a fascinating glimpse into how a country chose to respond to a national emergency. As well as government film from the titular training site, director Sierra Pettengill unearths a treasure trove of TV coverage, which provides context around the ongoing political arguments. Riotsville, USA is an immersive and enlightening documentary which charts the counter-narrative of the time.

Riotsville, USA screens at Sundance Film Festival.

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