Review of 'Punishment Park', director Peter Watkins
Frighteningly realistic yet simultaneously unbelievable, Punishment Park was made over 35 years ago but is still relevant today. So it's good that the film is being shown at a season of Peter Watkins films at the ICA in London during July.
It's 1970 America and the political crisis that is Vietnam has really started to cut deep into the heart of US imperialism. On the defensive, the US ruling class take desperate measures - Nixon declares a national state of emergency and sets the 1950 McCarran Act into motion permitting detention of those deemed to be a threat to internal security. This sets the backdrop to the film which, set in a desert in California, begins with a group of activists and conscientious objectors ('Group 637') who, in order to avoid long sentences in penitentiaries handed out by a tribunal in a tent close by, have opted for the alternative of three days in Bear Mountain National Punishment Park.
As the group quickly discovers, Punishment Park is certainly no Disneyland. In order to be acquitted of their sentences and with a two-hour head-start, the group are required to trek across a roasting hot south Californian desert to reach an American flag some 53 miles away within three days and without getting caught by the Feds. Meanwhile, the tribunal of 'Group 638' gets under way, where arguments ensue between the new detainees and the tribunal of right wing civilians. As both groups are soon to discover, the rules of the game aren't exactly fair play and the whole escapade increasingly appears as a legal cover-up for a Hollywood-flavoured death camp.
Made like a genuine documentary filmed by a foreign film-crew, the hand-held cinéma vérité style gives authenticity to a fictional concept created by filmmaker Peter Watkins, whose John Motson-esque British accent provides commentary and interviewing throughout. His approach doesn't prevent Watkins from drawing out layers of meaning as he skilfully refrains from using the observational style on only a superficial level. Watkins could be described as a turbo-charged sci-fi Ken Loach fuelled on radical MDMA whose outstanding talent and genius have unfortunately not been equally matched by acclaim at home. Initially receiving massive public attention in 1964 for his BBC-produced (and subsequently BBC-banned) Oscar-winning (for Best Documentary!) film about a nuclear strike on England called The War Game, Watkins has been generally ignored, his films not finding the cultural space they truly deserve.
And after watching this film you'll understand why. Every cinematic choice that Watkins makes is a radically political one, his inter-cutting between the ideological debates in the tribunal and the fight for survival in the park serving as the backbone for forming intelligent arguments and allowing the audience a beautiful balance between emotional identification and crude critical analysis. The activists are a cross-section of the whole 1960s and 1970s resistance, creating a sharp representation of the whole movement from the civil rights and student anti-war campaigners through to women fighting for sexual liberation. The 'game' is used to illustrate the brutal, coercive role of the police within society as the questions of violence and resistance are approached ingeniously. The filmmakers' increasing identification with the activists and outrage at the police actions is creatively used to find empathy with an 18 year old National Guardsman whose naivety is exposed when the filmmaker antagonises him in an interview.
It is all too reminiscent of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and the war on terror. With the Patriot Act in America and the anti-terrorism legislation here, it is also too reminiscent of the attacks on our civil liberties. Even the tribunal reminds us of George Galloway's battering of the US Senate when the activists turn the interrogation onto the interrogators. In comparison to other Vietnam films, the parallels with Iraq are striking and this is where the film finds its particular strength. Watching the film one is sometimes left wondering if Watkins is some kind of political psychic, but what one is actually observing is his acute understanding of war, imperialism and the role of the state within capitalism. Re-released within the context of the huge anti-capitalist counterculture, Punishment Park manages to raise the level of the argument one step further. Summed up by a symbolic and creative sequence at the end, a confrontation between the police and the activists, Watkins's powerful film throws up the vital question of the state within our fight to overthrow a repressive system. I believe that this film demonstrates the forces we're up against and will help us think clearly about what we're required to do if we want to win.