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Punishment Park

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Peter Watkins
Patrick Boland
Kent Foreman
Carmen Argenziano
Luke Johnson
Catherine Quittner
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British experimental filmmaker Peter Watkins made his low budget 1971 movie “Punishment Park” against a tense historical backdrop of increasing social and political unrest in America, during the latter half of the sixties and the early-seventies. The war in Vietnam was escalating and student unrest at home, clustered as it was around a number of related themes such as civil rights issues and opposition to the draft, had resulted in a deep polarisation of attitude and opinion gathering storm between the youthful factions of the counterculture and an entrenched and intolerant political establishment. An apparently unbridgeable gap seemed to be opening up and increasing paranoia taking root in this highly-charged and febrile atmosphere; campus protests frequently turned violent and the image of the establishment turning against its own young as the Nixon administration began to see sedation and conspiracy around every corner intent on undermining the security of the nation, was an image that seemed to hold a grim portent for the future. Watkins’ film was undoubtedly informed by specific events and radical fringe figures from this period: the emergence of groups such as the Yippies and the Black Panther movement; the gratuitous response of the police to anti-war protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the resultant travesty of a trial of the ‘Chicago Seven”; and then the horrific shooting of unarmed student protestors at Kent State University, Ohio in May 1970 – these historical events clearly provide the wellspring of material motivating Watkins’ harsh political allegory. Faced with such a specific fictional response to then-contemporary events, it might be assumed that the film could only now seem like an anachronism to a modern audience unaware of the specifics of the political motivations for it. Worryingly, nothing could be further from the truth.

One obvious way in which the film seems startlingly modern to a contemporary viewer comes about as a result of Watkins’ habitual faux-documentary approach to fiction. We’re now quite used to the existence of the ‘mockumentary’ and docudrama genres, and we’ve grown almost blasé about the idea of fiction being packaged for us in a form that was previously always associated with the presentation of unvarnished ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ – something the found footage genre has been able to exploit amply over the past few years, for example. But Watkins was pioneering the use of documentary form in his earliest drama fiction, most famously in his 1964 BBC film “Culloden”, an account of the 1746 Jacobite rebellion, which was shot in the style of modern newsreel reportage, such as that which was coming out of Vietnam at the time. The aim of making a film about an historical event from the distant past look like something that could be mistaken for an event that was happening at that very moment, goes to the heart of Watkins’ obsession with the media’s manipulation and creation of ‘truth’, and its role in facilitating and perpetuating the very societal conditions it apparently aims to report on from its detached, lofty viewpoint. “Punishment Park” is an even more complex meditation on the subject, and even more radical and nuanced in its approach.

The version of reality we’re presented with during the film was intended by Watkins to be a depiction of events that ‘could take place yesterday, today, tomorrow, or five years hence’. The film’s content is a figurative metaphor standing for the breakdown of American society and its polarisation into uncommunicative factions; Watkins assiduously uses the techniques of documentary to present a set of political and social conditions which are allegorical  -- being intended to illustrate the nature of political repression and the draconian forces it unleashes masquerading behind the veneer of intent to protect democracy and enforce the law, but actually creating strife and ill-will. He aims to show that attempts to rebel against such forces are often doomed by their own tendency to repeat the same processes of factional thinking, conditioned by the very dialectics the state uses to condemn them. The set-up for the film presents a fictional scenario in which the Nixon government, responding to an upsurge in bombings, protests and massed sit-ins on student campuses across the country in the face of increasingly unstable conditions in Indio-China, finds itself faced with a surfeit of politically motivated prisoners and an overcrowded penal system. Citing powers granted to him by the 1950 Internal Security Act (also known as the McCarren Act, which was passed during the McCarthy era and was still active at the time the film was released, although repealed soon after) Nixon authorises the creation of a series of dentition camps and special, secretive tribunals that aim to decide, in line with the terms of the act, whether the persons brought before them constitute a subversive threat to national security, either now or at some point in the future. Those found guilty by the tribunal are to be presented with a choice consisting of two options: either accept a grossly inflated prison sentence to be served in a Federal state prison, or take the chance of participating in a three-day ‘Punishment Park’ course. Here they will be set loose across a baking fifty mile stretch of the Mojave Desert, with the aim of reaching an American flag without being caught. If they are captured by the selected units of police and the National State Guard, who will be in hot pursuit, they will be forced to serve out their penal sentences. But if they reach the flag, their obligations will have been fulfilled and they will be released.

The manner in which Watkins presented this entirely fictional situation proved highly controversial at the time of the film’s release. The film purports to be a documentary, shot by a British-German film crew who are reporting on the American Punishment Park system and covering the workings of the tribunal as it decides upon the guilt of one particular group of detainees consisting of hippy draft dodgers, black activists and peacenik songwriters, while intercutting with ‘documentary’ footage of another group that has already been found guilty, as it prepares to participate in one of the three-day Punishment Park events at Bear Mountain in California. This ‘documentary’ covers the prisoners’ progress (as well as that of their pursuers in the army), as they embark on their desperate cross-desert trek. Watkins himself provides the narration, taking the role of the detached unaffected observer, regaling the viewer with facts and statistics in a calm, level, authoritative English accented voice which aims neither to condemn nor condone the proceedings being objectively documented in the narrative. The film’s means of production only add to this projected air of authenticity: Watkins cast amateurs rather than professional actors in the roles of detainees, tribunal members and police & army units alike. Even though many of the performers playing the detainees who are shown being interviewed during the tribunal hearings were based on recognisable figures from the protest movements of the time, the views we hear expressed by them are often 100% those of the people uttering them. The original script was thrown out completely and all the actors encouraged in improvising their dialogue scenes. The actors playing the tribunal members were told to exaggerate their own right-leaning views for effect, while the amateurs playing the detainees were always expressing their own political opinions, whether pacifist or radically in favour of violent insurrection. Intercut with the apparently objectively captured proceedings of the tribunal hearings (which take place in a tent on the edge of the desert) and the flight of the detainees through the desert shot on an unsteady, hand-held portable camera, are what purport to be interviews with many of the political prisoners we see being driven through the Punishment Park process, as well as with the law enforcement officials assigned to track them down as part of a training exercise.

Shot on 16mm film stock and later blown up to 35mm, the hand-held work of camerawoman Joan Churchill gives the film the look of completely authentic ‘70s newsreel footage -- caught on the fly as events unfold, then edited together with interview footage obtained beforehand -- simply because the improvisational nature of these sequences made it impossible for her to know beforehand where to focus the camera. Churchill had to pull focus herself in order to get the right coverage at the right time and soundman Michael Moore, if anything, had it even harder-- trying to cover dialogue on-the-spot when there was no script to work from.  During the gruelling desert sequences, Churchill was able to shoot while running across a baking hot desert landscape, carrying a heavy hand-held camera at the same time; the result of these endeavours is that both the tribunal and the desert sequences look like completely authentic newsreel footage accompanied by Watkins’ always-convincing narration. Indeed, one of the more radical features of the director’s approach is that the line between what constitutes reality and fiction-that-is-merely-‘pretending’-to-be-reality is blurred to such an extent that it becomes difficult for the viewer to untangle what is real and what isn’t. Watkins’ agile use of the textures and techniques of the documentary form as the containment for a fictional framework in which the inclusion of real opinions and staged arguments often might seem to be tipping, before our eyes, over into real before-the-camera disputes occuring between the participating actors, encourages us to ask the question: which of the facts we’re presented with are true and which merely part of a metaphorical fiction the filmmaker has set in the dystopian near future? In fact, so completely is the uneasy illusion of verisimilitude maintained that one of the actors was actually later jailed on a bombing charge, and even Watkins found himself believing that an accident had really occurred at one point in the shoot, and includes his genuine response to the event in question on the film’s soundtrack, verbatim: it happened when an over-eager actor, playing one of the militant radicals taking part in the Punishment Park ordeal, threw a rock at one of the other performers who was playing a soldier, whereupon the solider-actor immediately opened fire out of real anger. Some of the other actors fell down in response, feigning death, but because this whole exchange had been unscripted, Watkins thought that live ammunition must have somehow been swapped for blanks and that people had been hurt or killed for real. He started screaming for the camera to be cut, but Churchill kept on filming anyway; the whole thing was captured on film and was blended in with the final edit – a piece of reality incorporated seamlessly to aid the wider illusion of authenticity the film strives to capture in service of a political metaphor about the spread of unrest.

Antipathy towards such a convincing presentation of fictional situations while using the form and methods of unalloyed factual reporting denoted the primary content of the barrage of criticism that greeted the film upon its release. The portrayal of the US Government in such a way (although Watkins insisted the film wasn’t ever intended as a specific indictment of the American Government in particular), i.e. as being willing to suspend human rights for political expediency in the name of home security, and being depicted as willing to set up detention camps for detainees without trial and without necessarily having any evidence that they had committed any crime, aside from possessing a vague conviction that they posed a threat to the nation, seemed outrageously provocative and was dismissed in some quarters as the warped masochistic wish fulfilment of a disgruntled left wing intellectual. Indeed, so authentic was Watkins’ depiction of the political milieu at the time that many audience members ended up thinking it was a real documentary, and soon after the film opened in Denmark the Danish Government apparently issued a statement condemning the existence of such facilities on American soil, and then had to sheepishly withdraw it with an apology once it realised no such facilities actually existed; Watkins’ defence that the film’s events were intended as an allegory, and the adoption of the documentary form an attempt to demonstrate the media’s culpability in abetting society’s subtle forms of oppression, fell on death ears.

What seems doubly ironic from today’s perspective is, of course, that though the specific shadings of the politics of the subjects whose views are faux-documented within the film are clearly entrenched in its 1970s historical setting, the issues it raises couldn’t be more prescient even if Watkins had all along been attempting to make a social prediction about where this on-going process of polarisation was soon to end up. With incisive editing, a complex and radically experimental sound design that collapses the linear time & space narrative conventions of popular drama, and an unsparingly convincing docudrama depiction of a divided society whose members are split into divisive groups always shouting past each other and no longer listening, the film depicts via Watkins’ favourite central ‘game’ metaphor, a world system in which both the law enforcing establishment and the radical detainees are seen to be playing along with a set of rules that can only lead to more violence whatever strategy they attempt to adopt -- be it militant, semi-militant or pacifist. The result is a powerful, intense and demanding drama; the desert setting cannot help but conjure contemporary ghosts of Guantanamo and Abu Ghriab and the sense of increasing hysteria is palpable as one act of violence leads to another until an avalanche effect occurs in the dusty red desert, and it becomes apparent that the rules of the game are being rigged until no one can win, yet neither can anyone step outside the destructive game that’s being played either.

This dual format edition in Eureka Entertainment’s on-going Masters of Cinema series includes a wonderful new high definition transfer which captures fantastic levels of extra detail but still represents an authentic presentation of the film’s original colour palette and 16mm grain. Peter Watkins has become rather a marginal figure over the years (although he would claim he’s been forced onto the margins by the mainstream media) who refuses to give interviews and mistrusts the machinations of what he calls the ‘audio-visual’ media which he feels is beholden to the ‘Monoform’ – or in other words, to a conventional means of dealing with narrative that informs all mainstream documentary, drama and Hollywood cinema, and which Watkins holds to be largely responsible for our current socio-political malaise.  Consequently, he’s much given to presenting his opinions in long media statements in essay form, available from his website ( or in statements such as the one which appears on this Blu-ray/DVD in which he can be seen on-screen in a single shot, accompanied by pages of written notes. His half-hour introduction to “Punishment Park”, included here, comes alongside an excellent analytical commentary by Dr Joseph Gomez who contextualises the film’s place in Watkins’ filmography and relates it to his continuing development as a filmmaker and thinker; examines the political backdrop to the film; and explores in-depth its cinematic techniques and methods. It’s an exemplary and scholarly commentary which, unlike 90% of these things, has much of great interest to say. Optional English subtitles are included for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and an excellent forty-page booklet comes complete with a reprint of the original 1971 press kit; a lengthy extract from Joseph Gomez’s  book on Peter Watkins; and a piece by Watkins himself termed a ‘self-interrogatory dialogue’ and titled The Creative and Political Meaning of Punishment Park -- in which the author expounds further on his belief that the hierarchical nature of the internal language which informs all popular culture is detrimental to society, and goes on to locate “Punishment Park” as being a film that, while also representing that very form, is at least attempting to forge an internal dialogue that critiques its own processes.  

This is a thought-provoking and distressing film which, whatever you think about the somewhat fringe ideas of its author, deserves far more recognition for its innovation and provocative blend of realism and expressionism than it has previously been afforded. This dual format edition makes for an exemplary presentation, by the always reliable Masters of Cinema, of a film that seems even more necessary and up-to-date in today’s world than it did in 1971. Well worth checking out.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But The Night!


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