Sierra Pettengill’s short documentary The Rifleman met the DokuFest audience on Sunday at DokuKino.
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, this short documentary examines the life of Harlon Carter 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.
In the Q&A session after the screening, Pettengill explained how she was not satisfied with simple narratives and unfolded the way her film places the NRA in the broader context of how gun ownership, since early in the nation’s founding, has been central to enforcing a white nationalist vision of the United States.
“There is a massive gun problem obviously in USA, and big part how that’s evolved is NRA”, says Pettengill, also stressing that the public has very little access to how this Association works and controls the gun policy. “The challenges in making this film are related to problems with NRA, which is that we hadn’t accessibility to how they function, so their archives are totally secret”, she adds.
But Pettengill also notes that although the NRA existed to organize and consolidate a lobby, in real sense the problem didn’t begin with them.
“For me the gun problem is also a problem very clearly of white nationalism in US, they are very closely linked”, says Petengill, while adding that the problem is enshrined in the Constitution from the very beginning, and “the reason for that came to be that guns were necessary to wipe out Native American populations”. “That’s something I learned making this film”, says Pettengill.
She also explained how all of her films so far have focused on white supremacism in US in different forms. 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 also 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.
She was a Sundance Institute Art of Nonfiction Fellow, a fellow at the Yaddo and MacDowell colonies, and writes frequently about film for publications including Frieze and Film.