Sierra Pettengill, The Rifleman

Sierra Pettengill

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Sierra Pettengill, The Rifleman (still), 2020. Courtesy Field of Vision.

Field of Vision and e-flux present Sierra Pettengill, The Rifleman
Sierra Pettengill

Online premiere

May 10–17, 2021

Field of Vision and e-flux are very pleased to announce the online premiere of Sierra Pettengill’s new documentary short The Rifleman.

The Rifleman delves deep into the origins of the National Rifleman Association (NRA) through astonishing archival footage spanning decades, revealing the modern organization’s roots in the backlash against the civil rights movement. From the early 1950s at the US-Mexico border to the NRA in the post–civil rights era, The Rifleman examines the life of one man who changed the trajectory of the gun organization forever, meticulously revealing the xenophobic and racial attitudes that belie the NRA’s so-called “pro-Second Amendment” stance of today.

The film premieres on e-flux Video & Film on Monday, May 10 at 12 pm EST, where it will stream for one week alongside a written Q&A with the filmmaker conducted by film scholar Christian Rossipal.

The online release will follow on Field of Vision later this month.

Q&A with Sierra Pettengill
By Christian Rossipal

Christian Rossipal (CR):
I’m curious why you decided to make a film about the NRA and what interested you about Harlon Carter—the association’s former leader and powerful lobbyist, and your main protagonist—in particular.

Sierra Pettengill (SP):
My initial impetus was much less about Harlon Carter specifically as an individual than it was about trying to track the evolution and roots of the NRA throughout its history. I’d been looking for a way to do that that could be achievable in a short piece. I am much more inclined towards institutional portraiture than towards biography, as the “bad apples” or “great men” portrayed as either much better or much worse than the rest of us can belie the embedded harm in these systems. I’m reading David Graeber’s brilliant Utopia of Rules (2015) right now; his approach to bureaucracy really resonates with me:

[S]ituations created by violence – particularly structural violence, by which I mean forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm – invariably tend to create the kind of willful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures.

It’s this “willful blindness” that I’m trying to examine. I don’t care about Carter’s psychology; I don’t generally believe in the impulse to “solve” or explain people through nonfiction. An institution that accepts, promotes, and valorizes someone like Harlon Carter is in alignment with the values he holds. There’s a deep backbench of Carters in our institutions.

Your commitment to uncovering such structural violence is powerfully conveyed in The Rifleman, but it also goes back to prior films. In your work, from The Reagan Show (2017) to Graven Image (2017) and The Rifleman, you are critically exploring powerful institutions and oppressive social formations (in particular, white supremacy). While resistance movements show up occasionally on screen—like the Black Panthers do in The Rifleman—they are not really the main focus of the narratives. What has led you to this focus on deconstructing powerful institutions? Is it a consequence of working with mainstream media archives?

I grew up in Nassau County just outside the Queens border, in a town that, amongst many other things, serves as a feeder for the NYPD. There’s a lot of self-congratulatory hypocritical “progressiveness” that abounds there, and noticing white supremacy in all its seemingly-banal guises was formative.

So there’s that conceptual and political focus: I think there’s a need to survey and reveal the forms white supremacy takes and the pernicious ways that their presentations and language can change through time while their goals and meanings do not, in order to combat them. Doing that without repeating those same harms is the deeply difficult part. More than the research itself, it’s getting that framing right that makes me work really slowly.

But there’s another ethical layer to it as well, and that’s in terms of the form. I have worked with archival materials for a long time now, in lots of different capacities. The authorship of these images is something I take really seriously—archives are not to be smeared in together as some continuous “record” of authenticity. Footage shot by network news cameras and broadcast to audiences of millions is obviously vastly different than community-authored archives made for personal use, or collaboratively conceived, or full of the layers of pain and trust that come with resistance movements.

It’s hard for me to feel like I have a right to access that footage, that I can reappropriate it towards my own ends without having a personal relationship with its authors, many of whom shot it with great risk to themselves, or for no compensation—or where there are additional layers of inter-production conflict that may be invisible to me. Documentary filmmakers talk a lot about “access,” and I think when it comes to archives, that notion of access can be interrogated just as rigorously as a relationship with an on-camera “subject.”

This film’s producer, Arielle de Saint Phalle, is a great example of someone whom I’ve watched work really closely with photographers and the children of film subjects, forging relationships that are developed over years. On some films I’ve spent time in people’s homes going through photo albums with them. If I’m not able to work that way, I find it really difficult to work with that material. I’ve worked on a lot of films where there’s a sense that you can’t negotiate with the Disneys and the Mega News Corps and their extortionist licensing rates, but a person on a street with a video camera will hand it over for a special thanks in the end credits. It’s an incredibly backwards way of working and can be a dehumanizing, disrespectful process in the guise of liberal politics.

Mainstream media images, owned by corporations (or the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the NRA or the Reagan administration) to me are fair game. The ethics there are clear, and the impact those media presentations have had on the proliferation of narratives is also very clear, and they call for an airing out.

Given your careful approach to documentary ethics, I’m interested in the process behind including racist language and Carter’s murder of Ramón Casiano. It must have involved taking difficult decisions. Was there any particular kind of material you chose to omit altogether?

It was incredibly difficult. I could have continued editing for several more months. Some of the rules we set for ourselves were to omit any visual or auditory depictions of violence, and to show or say the very minimum necessary—to try to get the point across and then that’s it. And to allow for a lot of breath and air. I’ve come to really value silence and a black screen. And this is the first film I’ve put a content warning on.

We wanted to honor Ramón Casiano, and emphasize that he was a child. One of our strategies was to save that chapter for the very end—by which point you’ve hopefully learned to “read” the language of the film—and also, to tell it through a voiceover that was recorded to feel distant. The beginning of the film is deliberately very slowly and quietly paced and structured. I hoped that the time spent in the opening, which follows a quote from Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, would help balance out the appalling end. We open and close the film a quarter-century apart, but in the exact same place.

For an archival film like The Rifleman the editing process must have been crucial, as you’ve already indicated. You co-wrote the film with Daniel Garber, who was also the editor. This is the third film you have done together with him, if I’m not mistaken. Do you want to tell us about your collaboration with Garber and about the interplay between writing and editing a film like The Rifleman?

Yes, the edit took about a year, with some COVID-necessitated downtime in there (during which Daniel and I kept ourselves occupied by monitoring a whole bunch of surveillance cameras from around the world during the rolling waves of lockdowns.)

The collaboration with the editor is super primary to me; both Graven Image and The Rifleman were conceived from the outset with Daniel in mind. For Business of Thought (2020), the same was true of editor Mackenzie Lukenbill—the film started to take some shape in my head once I started thinking about working with them. These films obviously only really take shape in the editing room, and their structure and language are formed in direct collaboration with the editor. It’s a deeply written process.

Daniel’s a dedicated cinephile, a really gentle and thoughtful person, and a tremendous artist, and we work together on projects in lots of different roles. He’s much more patient than I am. He also really developed the sound bed to the film.

For all three of those short films, I also had the musicians for the scores in mind right from the jump: The Caretaker, Arto Lindsay, and Los Lichis (who are an incredible art collective from Monterrey and Mexico City; their work spans genres and decades and is totally wild). Those things need to evolve together; I hate the idea of treating sound and music as if they’re a layer of frosting to be smeared on en route to the party.

The Rifleman features rich archival footage but also excerpts from newspapers and other print sources. Where and how did you look for the source material? What did the research process look like?

The NRA is notoriously secretive with its archives, which are buried away in a climate-controlled bunker somewhere. I started with a lot of great secondary sources that helped frame the history, and then traced quotes and citations and footnotes backwards to their sources. There’s something intensely satisfying about building a case against someone based solely on their publicly available words. Broadly speaking, my process is to work through the primary sources and try to let the media itself inform the film. The hard part is knowing when to stop.

Early on, I connected with a researcher who had digitized a bunch of American Rifleman magazines from the 1970s and who generously shared his materials with me, and I ordered most of the 1960s editions off of eBay and read through them with Daniel.

Then I did the same with all the congressional testimonies and government documents I could find, as well as newspapers from Laredo, Texas where Carter was from. I tracked down his high school yearbook to see what could be gleaned from that. The footage of Carter as the Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol came from a great university archive, UNT’s (University of North texas); we got them to digitize that from 16mm without knowing what would be on it.

I’m compelled by the physical detritus of history, and by what we can read into what’s presented as kitsch. There can be a certain aesthetic clumsiness to this stuff that can sometimes allow for a really illuminating transparency. I spent some time last year looking at the menus of state functions from a 1968 police conference, for example, and at raw footage of people shopping for ceramic souvenirs during the 1968 Republican National Committee (RNC) in Miami Beach. There’s a lot of information that we can glean from objects.

One focus of my work is the way that narratives get formed and transmitted through images, and so I want to call attention to the actual media as much as possible. Pointing to the archives—their sources and veracity, while also giving the audience the tools to check in themselves—is important to me. We had voiceover performed from primary source text, but we also added the citations for those quotes in the “empty” pillarboxed spaces on the edges of the frame, in the margins. I loved incorporating citations into the film, even just as a reminder that these things exist and can be found, and here’s where to find them. History should not feel like an inaccessible mystery, especially a public media history. It belongs to all of us.

Sierra Pettengill’s work focuses on the warped narratives of the American past. Most recently, she directed the “Big Dan’s” episode of the Netflix documentary series Trial by Media. Her 2017 feature-length film, the all-archival documentary The Reagan Show, premiered at the Locarno Film Festival before airing on CNN. Her 2018 all-archival short film, Graven Image, aired on POV and is held at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and her 2020 short Business of Thought premiered at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. In 2013 she produced the Academy Award-nominated film Cutie & the Boxer, which also won an Emmy Award for Best Documentary, and co-directed Town Hall for PBS. She has also worked as an archival researcher for many filmmakers including Jim Jarmusch, Mathieu Amalric, and Mike Mills. Pettengill was a Sundance Institute Art of Nonfiction Fellow, and a fellow at the Yaddo and MacDowell colonies. She writes frequently about film for publications including frieze and Film Comment.

Christian Rossipal is a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema Studies at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Christian’s research and teaching interests include, among other things, migrating minor cinemas and the media infrastructures of violence and coloniality. His work has been published in Film Quarterly, The Global South, and Routledge Key Issues in Cultural Heritage, and he has forthcoming articles in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies and the anthology Entangled Legacies of Empire: Race, Finance & Inequality. Rossipal is a member of the artist-activist collective Noncitizen.

Founded in 2015, Field of Vision is a filmmaker-driven visual journalism and documentary unit that commissions and supports filmmakers and artists with developing and ongoing stories around the globe. Recent projects have included the Oscar®-winning feature American Factory; the Oscar®-nominated features Strong Island and Hale County This Morning, This Evening; the Oscar®-nominated shorts Do Not Split, A Night at the Garden, and In the Absence; the Emmy-winning feature Crime + Punishment; and the Emmy-nominated feature The Surrender. Field of Vision has an ongoing commitment to supporting innovation and diversity and as such 54% of Field of Vision-supported films have been directed by women and 43% by filmmakers of color. Since its foundating, Field of Vision has commissioned, produced, and/or supported more than 45 features, 5 episodic series, and 85 short films. This work has premiered at Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, SXSW, Hot Docs, Tribeca, and IDFA, among many other festivals garnering numerous accolades and awards. An emphasis on short films has allowed Field of Vision to support fast responses to unfolding political moments in countries including Brazil, France, Hong Kong, India, Japan, The Philippines, Russia, South Korea, South Africa, Spain, and Sudan. fieldofvision.org

Film, Human and Civil Rights
Documentary, Libraries & Archives, Violence, USA, Photojournalism, Biography

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