Peter Watkins’ Vietnam-era study of protest, politics and punishment remains timely, but it’s too much in love with sloganeering to win over hearts and minds.
In his lengthy introduction to the blu-ray of his 1971 film Punishment Park, recorded in 2004, Peter Watkins remains clearly bitter about the way his film was received in America, quoting at length from savage reviews and complaining about its minimal theatrical release. He probably has a point – I doubt the political message of the film went down well with the establishment or the mainstream public in early Seventies America. But in reality, I suspect that the main reason the film vanished from sight with a very limited release is a far more prosaic one – Punishment Park is a thoroughly uncommercial proposition, and it’s entirely understandable that distributors, with an eye on the box office, would not be interested (notably, Watkins tells us that the film was pulled from it’s opening theatrical showing after four days, but fails to inform us how many people had actually gone to see the film in that time). It’s a pity because – like all Watkins’ films – this has much to say. But like it or not, most people don’t go to the cinema to be lectured to, and more so than any of his other pseudo-documentary films, this does feel like hard work.
The film takes its theme from a piece of US legislation (repealed shortly after the film was made) that allowed for ‘subversives’ to be rounded up and imprisoned in times of emergency. Oh, how Donald Trump must’ve wished for those powers back during 2020. In the film, the Nixon government are using these powers to arrest political protestors, anti-war activists, folk singers, hippies and just about anyone else who doesn’t fit with the status quo and subject them to McCarthyesque hearings where their guilt has already been decided. They are then offered the choice between lengthy prison sentences, or four days in ‘Punishment Park’. This is an area of desert where prisoners are given three days to reach an American flag 53 miles away while being chased by the police and army, for whom this is a training exercise. The film then intercuts the hearings of Group 638 with the efforts of the previous group – 637 – who have elected for the Punishment Park option, as they struggle against dehydration and internal bickering while attempting the impossible task of capturing the flag (it’s obvious immediately that this supposed ‘get out of jail free’ option was an unattainable goal and little more than an extra punishment) – all filmed by a European documentary crew.
There’s the potential for biting political satire in this idea – and indeed, exaggerated, hyper-violent and more commercial versions of the same idea have been used to greater or lesser effect in films like Battle Royale, The Running Man and others – but unfortunately, Watkins isn’t really interested in entertainment. That’s an entirely valid approach to take, but it inevitably restricts the number of people who will hear your message. It strikes me that if you really have a point to make about fascist governments, crime and punishment and cultural schisms, you might want to do so to the largest possible audience possible, and maybe that involves draping your political points in something accessible and entertaining – you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Instead, Watkins goes with a blunt documentary style, shot on 16mm – complete with improvised dialogue from non-professional actors – that certainly makes the points he wants, but does so in such a blunt, relentless manner that it makes the film very hard work. If this was a genuine documentary, such an approach might be valid – though even then, when documentaries become polemics, people might understandably start to question the truth of what they are being told from a one-sided perspective – but we constantly aware that this is a fiction, however plausible and authentic, and that inevitably affects the level of outrage you might feel at the injustice of it all. Some of the hippies are also incredibly annoying, which doesn’t help.
With America still running a concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay, and with anti-capitalist protests, a seemingly unhinged reality TV star as President and violent political divisions polarising opinion in US politics, there’s no denying that Punishment Park is as relevant today as it ever was. And if you can deal with the unforgiving structure of the film, it is a fascinating, thought-provoking, if relentlessly bitter look at the political conflicts of the time, when protest was a much riskier proposition than today, with activists and demonstrators killed by the police more frequently than you might think – certainly more than they have been in recent years, despite what people want to believe. Most of this film has opposing voices shouting at each other without listening, offering no solutions or ways forward – something that social media users will be only too used to now. This might be an effective critique of our entrenched positions and unwillingness to escape from our own social bubbles – but the film itself also feels like someone screaming their opinion at you for ninety minutes, without you being able to even consider counter-points. And honestly, even if you agree with the opinion of Watkins and his film, after a while the hysterical level of it all begins to wear you down. While his other work like The War Game, Culloden, Privilege and even Gladiators make their political points with a varying degree of subtlety that allows the message to be heard all the more effectively, Punishment Park simply pushes the envelope too far.
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