The dangers of a history that repeats itself in Sierra Pettengill's alert cinema

by Porto/Post/Doc / 14 09 2022

If there is one mark that stands out in the work of the American archivist and filmmaker Sierra Pettengill, it’s its ability to put the past in dialogue with the present in a way that allows not only historical documentation, but also draws a roadmap to the present moment, and a leaves a warning of ‘history repeating itself’. Pettengill’s short but brilliant filmography weaves together a tapestry of rare imagery, where she explores themes like the performance of state violence in the USA or the pageantry, absurdity, and mastery of the made-for-TV politics of Ronald Reagan. Essential and urgent filmmaking to be discovered in the retrospective that Porto/Post/Doc is doing on her work. 

When at the beginning of 2022 Sierra Pettengill’s latest feature, Riotsville, USA, premiered at Sundance Film Festival, in the North American documentary competition, critics hailed it as an impassioned and clear-eyed documentary on the militarisation of the police force. Immersive and enlightening, the film questions how violent tactics from the past have led to the increasingly armed present we witness today.

Riotsville, USA is just the most recent expression of Pettengill’s all-archival practice, which explores the haunting of America’s present by its past. A skilled archivist who has worked with the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Pettengill’s previous feature film, the all-archival The Reagan Show (co-directed with Pacho Velez) premiered at Locarno in 2017. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, and chock full of wit and political irony, it focuses on the actor turned US president’s media skills. Cinevue called it “a sobering portrait of a man whose prime concern was always his own image.”

Pettengill’s shorts, like her features, attempt to examine the way American narratives are told – and often warped – through time. Through meticulously assembled archival imagery, The Rifleman reveals the roots of the modern National Rifle Association, U.S. Border Patrol, and the gun lobby’s unyielding influence on national politics. In her 2018 short Graven Image, Pettengill uses over 100 years of archival footage to explore Stone Mountain, the largest Confederate monument in the USA. These shorts have been critically-acclaimed and shown at dozens of film festivals, including Sundance, Sheffield Doc/Fest, True/False. In The Business Of Thought: A Recorded History Of Artists Space, she organizes a journey through the oral history of Artists Space, a New York-based organization founded in 1972 with the aim of helping emerging artists, outside the system of museums and commercial galleries.

This program was developed in partnership with FLAD. 


Graven Image, USA, 10’, 2017, DOC
Riotsville, USA, USA, 91’, 2022, DOC
The Business Of Thought: A Recorded History Of Artists Space, USA, 11’, 2020, DOC
The Reagan Show, USA, 75’, 2017, DOC
The Rifleman, USA, 18’, 2020, DOC


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