Punishment Park

Punishment Park (1971)

Punishment Park first published by EyeforFilm

[Note: this was published in 2005, during the depths of the Bush era]

After becoming bogged down in a foreign conflict, the US Government has declared an “internal security emergency” at home and begun detaining citizens – young radicals, authors, activists, pacifists, draft dodgers, protest singers, feminists and poets – on the merest suspicion that they may possibly engage in future acts of subversion. A British documentary crew follows two groups of these detainees as they are processed at the Bear Mountain National Park in the desert of Southern California.

The members of one group have just arrived and, after undergoing individual “hearings” in a kangaroo court, are offered a choice: either to see out their unreasonably lengthy sentences in a detention centre, or to take a gamble on Punishment Park, with the possibility of winning their freedom should they make it to the end. In the meantime, the second group is discovering the realities of Punishment Park – a three-day, 53-mile dash on foot through the open desert without food or water to get to an American flag, pursued by armed and angry teams of law officers, riot police and National Guardsmen, intent on stopping them dead in their tracks.

Unlike the dunder-headed exploitation flicks Turkey Shoot (1982) and The Running Man (1987), both of which it has clearly (if rather bizarrely) influenced, Peter Watkins’ film is too frighteningly close to reality to be dismissed as mere fantasy entertainment. He utilises the faux- documentary style that he trademarked in work such as Culloden (1964), The War Game (1965) and The Gladiators (1969) so that it seems to derive from on-the-spot reportage of actual events, even as he foregrounds his own editorial practices (cross- cutting with venomous irony between the rhetorical exchanges at the hearing and the horrific physical severities – and worse – experienced at Punishment Park) to undermine the notion that any documentary can ever present raw “truth”.

The film’s content, like its form, runs the gauntlet between truth and fiction. While the plot may be speculative invention, set in a future where the Vietnam conflict has extended as far as the Chinese border and Russia has (reportedly) made encroachments into the Caribbean, Watkins has drawn many other details from actual contemporary events. The firing by National Guardsmen upon unarmed civilians recalls similar events at Kent State University in 1970, the binding and gagging of black prisoner Charles Robbins (Stan Armsted) during his own hearing alludes directly to the same treatment meted out to Bobby Seale during the Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial of 1969 and the so-called McCarran Act that triggers the central premise – an act giving the US president the authority, without further Congressional approval, to determine a state of emergency and to remove basic constitutional rights from anyone with the potential to commit future acts of state sabotage (i.e. anyone deemed politically undesirable) – was an authentic Internal Security Act that had been on the books since 1950.

Watkins provides further reality effects with his cast of non-professional actors, who improvised most of their lines, and, in the case of the defendants at least, were arguing positions strictly in accordance with their own sincerely held convictions. His fiction is to place the polarised views of the American Right and Left in a staged context of dialectical and physical confrontation (both in the tribunal tent, and in the desert outside) – but the views themselves are entirely genuine, reflecting positions held, not in some imagined future, but in Watkins’ immediate present.

Of course, now, some 35 years on, it might be supposed that the political context of Punishment Park is out of date – after all, the McCarran Act was repealed shortly after the film’s release, Nixon is no longer in office and the Vietnam War is long over. Yet, if anything, Watkins’ film has only gained in relevance, with the US once again caught in endless foreign conflict, the undermining of civilian freedoms by the Patriot Act, the untold horrors of US detention compounds in Guantánamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan, and an Administration exploiting the politics of polarisation to its own ends (“You’re either with us, or you’re against us”) in a land where domestic ‘Culture Wars’ continue to reflect bloodier struggles abroad.

Watkins’ self-styled “filmic metaphor of social injustice” imagines America’s system of crime and punishment as a game that can only ever be won by the Establishment responsible for setting the rules. Just as the detainees at the hearing have already been deemed guilty and are invited to voice their opinions, while in chains, before a panel that is neither required, nor inclined, to listen, so too the fugitives in Punishment Park are pursuing a dream of escape that they will never be allowed to fulfill, regardless of whether they work within the system, or fight against it.

The only ray of hope in this otherwise bleak vision is the conversion of the British journalist (never seen, but voiced by Watkins himself) from ‘objective’ observer to horrified eyewitness, reduced to imploring the law officers to stop what they are doing, swearing at them when they do not, and determined by the end to expose to the world what is really going on in Bear Mountain National Park. Yet the police are largely unfazed by his threats and interventions and one only needs to look at the way in which America subsequently ignored Watkins’ film to see why.

Despite rumours on the Internet to the contrary, Punishment Park has never been banned in the US. There has never been any need, for despite winning the Best Director’s Award at the 1971 Atlanta Film Festival, its only commercial exhibition in America has been a four-day run in an obscure New York cinema and a 10-day run in San Francisco. To date, no American television network has ever agreed to screen it and it has not enjoyed any kind of release for the home entertainment market. Watkins has occasionally been branded a sick fantasist by US critics, or condemned (much like Lars von Trier) as an outsider who has no right to pass judgment, or even to make comment – but, in yet another of those strange intersections of truth and fiction that Punishment Park so readily attracts to itself, it is the method used against the defendants in his film that has also proven most successful against Watkins himself. For the filmmaker’s railings against injustice have only been allowed within the confines of a closed court and, thereafter, he has been gagged and made quietly to disappear.

Punishment Park is an extraordinary film – provocative, incendiary and deeply dispiriting. Go out of your way to see it and spread the word, while you still can without being arrested.

© Anton Bitel