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Riotsville USA

American documentary conducts a probing investigation into one of the USA's most shameful moments in history, the Vietnam War, offering few answers but many damning insights - in cinemas on Friday, March 31st; on all major VoD platforms the following week

The cliché about American documentaries is that they spin a yarn before the viewers eyes that falls somewhere between the more conservative politics of the era and the more liberal – code for ‘woke’ – opinions of the millennial age, but director Sierra Pettengill bursts that myth wide open with a razor sharp work that is based almost entirely on archive materials. Whatever opinions Pettengill is trying to display is up to the viewer, but there’s no denying that the film boasts an impressive wealth of material, and an editing style that shoots forward with the urgency of a countercultural movement determined to topple the oligarchy of yore. Riotsville, USA is set in 1968, a year of startling revelation in America, whether it was chastising the integrity of a fruitless war, or summoning the efforts of a marginalised sect of society: black Americans.

Yes, this is a work that’s heavier on tone that form, but what tone it is, capturing the sourness that clung to the mouths of the movement who based their principles on peace, love and interracial harmony. Ten minutes into the film, the director demonstrates a convoy of youths wandering their streets to the presence of an army brigade traipsing into their homes. It’s a startling shot – Democrat Presidents John F.Kennedy and Lyndon B.Johnson had concocted a series of policies that espoused the virtue of communal living, but were either unable or unwilling to push their ideologies to the feet of their government. Which isn’t to say the film lacks moments of levity.

When the film exhibits clips of the men who protested the Vietnam War, they are depicted as shabbily dressed orators, more the organisation of a rag-tag group of rabble-rousers as opposed to the militant wing they considered their outfit to be. Although the American government was embroiled in a war across the seas, they were devoting large numbers of their military powers propelling its country’s citizens back into their homes. What emerges isn’t closure but out and out confusion, which is fitting considering how bizarrely disorganised the powers were facing a mighty foe abroad when it could have been salvaging the plights, grievances and issues of its nation’s workforce.

Soberingly, their full force was captured on screen, and the film shows many innocent bystanders beaten for speaking a personal truth against war and for unity. What’s worse is how Little America (or Britain, for that matter) has progressed in the intervening years. Dense, eh?

Riotsville USA is in cinemas on Friday, March 31st. On all major VoD platforms the following week.

By Eoghan Lyng - 28-03-2023

Throughout a journey found through his own writings and the writings of other filmmakers, Eoghan has taken to the spirit of the surreal to find greater meaning from the real. He finds it far easier to...

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