Back in 1992, the Los Angeles riots not only set the city on fire, but lit up the news media with stories of violence, injustice, and racial profiling when the four white LAPD officers charged with the beating of unarmed black motorist Rodney King were found not guilty. For six days, America watched as LA tore itself apart, and two of those eyes belonged do a nine-year-old Nathan Silver, who inadvertently reinterpreted the country's turmoil into his first film.
Silver, who was a young boy living in Arlington, Massachusetts, at the time, used his ninth birthday party to make his directing debut, casting his guests as rioters, cops, and bystanders, supplying them with toy guns, cigarettes, and a whole bunch of attitude. He'd later use this footage in his short, Riot.
It's a peculiar thing to see one of the most upsetting chapters in America through the lens of a prepubescent white boy and his friends. At nine, Silver cared more about the violence than the reasons behind it. He remembers his intent with the project was to "strip the events completely bare of anything political" and simply make an action movie.
In Riot, Silver provides the context he was lacking then, adding text, archival TV footage of the riots, and earlier party footage of himself. What you see is a compendium of violent moments in front of and behind the camera from Silver's "play" riot and the real ones happening in the streets, juxtaposed with the joy of a kid's birthday party. The film has a chilling effect that calls to mind the steady stream of state violence, mass shootings, and racism broadcast today all over our TVs, computers, and smartphones. Watch Riot below and check out my interview with Nathan Silver below, all grown up.
VICE: How did you come across the Riot footage again? What made you want to turn it into something now?
Nathan Silver: My father showed it to me. I used some of it for the Kickstarter campaign video for Soft in the Head back in 2011. Then my producer Josh Mandel stumbled across the Kickstarter video last year and told me I should do something else with the footage. One night, I was extremely frustrated after not being able to figure out how to crack the trailer for Stinking Heaven, so I decided to mess around with the footage, and a few hours later, I emerged with Riot.
Have you always known that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
No. I loved Stand by Me and recreated certain scenes from that, but I wasn't obsessed with movies. I felt bored by most movies. A lot of things you're shown as a kid have the same old structure, and so you know exactly what's going to happen when—they're insanely predictable—and I remember feeling trapped in movie theaters, impatiently waiting for all the plot points to be hit, so I could return home.
What were your first thoughts when you went over the footage again? It's weird because you're both a badass toting a pistol and cigarette, yet you're also a total crybaby diva.
I was a jerk. A little piece of shit completely unaware of what I was reenacting. I don't know how my parents could put up with me to be honest, but parents' love is especially blind, I guess.
Which of those versions do you relate to more nowadays?
I don't really relate to either. In the movie, it seems like I want to be a dictator director (which is a combination of a jackass badass and crybaby diva). Over the years, I've become an enabler of chaos. I don't like the idea of having control over the actors; I prefer them to dictate the course of the movies. I'm bored of my own ideas. I live with them 24/7, for better or worse. I want other ideas to pervert my original concept.
You've now made a documentary short and a feature as well as narrative shorts and features. Do you see them all as an extension of your filmmaker voice, or are they different to you?
All my features are almost fiction, including Actor Martinez. Riot is the closest I've come to documentary, but I have no desire to enter the documentary world. I'm happy to be able to make movies in a realm where truth, reality, and facts aren't being constantly policed. As far as formats go, I'm much more interested in using cameras that distort reality and don't just serve up a mediocre version of it à la most affordable HD cameras, so whenever I can justify using outmoded technology, I will.
Your films are still about the messy underbelly of society, told through outsider's stories. However, they're very character driven and "indie." Do you think you'll ever take up your nine-year-old mantle again and make an all-out action movie?
Yes, I would very much like to. I'm not sure what it will look like, but the idea excites me to no end.
What are you working on now?
A multi-layered bizarro portrait of a good friend as well as a one-sided amour fou story to be shot in Paris.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.