We only just got around to seeing Peter Watkins' Punishment Park - we figured we've waited for 35 years... what's another week or so matter. Now we're kicking ourselves for not getting along to the ICA sooner so we could recommend this to you guys earlier. We caught the very last screening yesterday afternoon, but we still want to mention the film as it's due for a DVD release in the Autumn.
It's what Watkins describes as a psychodrama as the cast are mostly not actors and the script tended to be improvised and mirrored the beliefs of those voicing them. The exception to that were some of the right-wing authority figures who were played by ex-policeman and on the whole believed that the characters portrayed in the film were a danger to society.
Society was scared enough to not watch the film again for almost four decades.
The set up is reminiscent of a couple of JG Ballard short stories in which BBC crews follow both sides of an American anti communist war that has spilled over into Britain. Where Ballard envisaged an escalation of the Vietnam war forcing a civil war over here Watkins took what was happening in the States and turned everything up a notch or two. What he came up with was the idea of Punishment Parks - vast tracks of desert where the police and national guard could practice their law enforcement techniques on political dissidents as a way to alleviate prison overcrowding. The idea is that those convicted of crimes against their country are offered the choice between lengthy jail time and a few days in the Park. Naturally most people choose the Park.
As the movie unrolls we follow two groups. The first is just about to set off on their bid to reach an American flag some fifty or so miles away across a scorching desert with a two hour head start. The second group is brought before a tribunal where they get a chance to defend themselves before their sentence is passed. The drama jumps between the two groups as British camera crews film the events for broadcast back home.
The mock documentary effect is startling in its realism which shouldn't be surprising as Watkins cut his teeth on The War Game and is to this day an outspoken opponent of the media and how it is used by governments. That the dissidents believe in their words comes across especially in the kangaroo court scenes and despite the haircuts, clothes and 70's vocabulary just about everything they say still rings true.
As the tension in the court scene builds so does the 'action' out in the desert as that group breaks into three smaller ones. The first decide not to play the game at all and lie in wait for the first policeman to come their way. The rest break into a straggling run loaded down with a sick poet while the others carry on to the promise of water at the halfway mark and possible freedom once the flag is reached.
The film provides a fascinating window into the politics of 1970's America, but also resonates with today's climate - coming out of the screening everyone seemed to be talking about Guantanamo this and Patriot Act that...
Punishment Park is not an overly violent movie but the punishment doled out onto the runners and speakers is hard to watch. At times the film resembles stark sci fi of the seventies and perhaps if Watkins had disguised his movie with outlandish names and sets (ala THX 1138) it would be more of a classic today. That it isn't seems to be something that the director takes personally. Upon leaving the cinema yesterday the audience found a two sided A4 statement from Watkins deriding those that have kept his films from being seen and reaching the audience he deserves. For more of that we direct you to the director's website and his latest 115 page (!) media statement.
More information can be found at the excellent Punishment Park dot co dot uk.