Punishment Park Rises.
1970, the United States.
The death of the hippie era.
Vietnam was raging, the draft was in full force, African Americans were organising into groups like the Black Panthers. White middle class kids were forming groups like the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Mass protests swept the country and more and more the elder caretakers of the government saw the difference between kids and insurgents against the American state eroded. The Nixon presidency was about to go into freefall. New legislation was being drafted to allow, should the need arise, for the establishment of what amounted to concentration camps.
In Kent State University, students were assailed by a shoot to kill policy at an anti-war demonstration on campus.
It was now just as possible to get shot and killed on the way to class as it was in the Jungles of Indo-China.
Then there was the introduction of the McCarran, or Internal Security Act of 1950 (which was passed against President Truman's veto and was eventually repealed in 1990 - though FEMA still has the power to set up "work camps" for citizens in situations of extreme national danger), in which the U.S. government had given itself almost unlimited rights to incarcerate any U.S. citizen considered disloyal, traitorus, seditious or even subversive.
The American dream was dying, and the hands at its throat were those of Americans.
Everyone knew, but still, the government and the (even then) growing media clonglomerates began a stage management of information, the propaganda machine rolled inevitably into action.
At the same time, in California, a little known British filmaker named Peter Watkins had a series of educational films based on the American Civil War collapse on him. As he fought to keep these films alive, he felt that he was witnessing a new Civil War outside his window.
Watkins felt that he could not keep silent about this, or the increasing information control that was becoming ever more prevalent. And so he decided to make a film to comment on it.
Thus his 1971 opus "Punishment Park" was born.
Watkins wanted to do something that would reflect those troubled times, through the words of real people, and fight against the tightly scripted control that major media was embracing. And so in 1970, he raised fifty thousand dollars, got a basic crew together, and began filming what would now be known as a "mockumentary". Watkins recruited several young and older people from Los Angeles and gave them a brief of what the movie was to be about, then sent them away to develop their characters life and ideas. All scenes in the movie were to have no script and were to focus on real converstation between the actors, some of which were expressing their own views, and some who were not.
It was a triumph, as I could not tell who was playing against type and who was not, in fact, when you watch this film, it is incredibly difficult view anyone as actually "acting". This free flowing and amorphous method, that directly rebels against most cinema conventions worked so well that the Dainish government mistook this "metaphor movie" for an actual documentary and through diplomatic channels sent messages of concern to the U.S. government about how their judicial system was treating their own citizens. The U.S. government replied with the message that it was only a movie.
Punishment Park premiered in 1971, and caused what was then described as controversy, but today could only be described as outrage. American critics were almost universally appalled at the way this film, directed by an British man, portrayed the state of the nation in the land of the free.
Punishment Park was refused distribution, and only ran for a day in ONE cinema. It was then buried and was almost completely forgotten about until it's very timely release, now, thirty five years later on DVD.
Watkins idea centered around the creation of what he termed "Punishment Parks". Punishment park was his own extrapolation of where America was actually heading, as the Government incresingly viewed it's own citizens as internal enemies. The Park was to be a sixty mile stretch of desert where Political Prisoners were given the choice of a long gaol term, or three days in Punishment park. Those who chose the park option were to be pursued by representatives of the police, national guard and army across the desert with the ultimate goal of reaching an American flag flying at the end. If the participants reached the flag, they would be set free, if not they were to be arrested again to serve out their custodial sentence. This was all to allow for the training of security forces in the apprehension of what was then viewed as the greatest threat to America, its youth. In Watkins brutal vision things quickly get out of hand, and one Pole of the social structure sets out to deliberatly eradicate the other.
The Structure of the film is divided between an "Emergency Tribunal" which hears and then sentences individuals accused of sedition (Poets, Pacifists, Folk Singers, black journalists, black nationalists, etc) without jury. This section of the movie is particulary moving as the "actors" that play the accused trade unscripted verbal punches, that reflect their ideas with the "actors" that play the tribunal. These are all real issues from a real time from the lips of real people.
The second section, which is intercut between the "tribunal sections" focuses on another group of convicted seditionists who are simultaniously being pursued across the desert by law enforcement. It is brutal, violent, pathetic and hopeless as the citizens one by one succumb to the desert and the pursuit.
Punishment park has a seemingly unlikely premise, like that of a post apocalyptic movie. But it is chilling effective at hiding this through striking performances and skillfull camera work. It avoids falling into the easy pit of "counter-propaganda" or simple escapist horror as even in it's bloodiest moments it moves to an ambigious plane as both the Agents of the state and the radicals are shown as being to a certain extent victims of their own prejudice and fear.
Today, in these troubled times of Secret US detention centers, US torture of combatents, non-combatents and its own citizens alike, and with the increasing use of fear as a divisive weapon to erode civil liberties on US soil and solidify state power over any and all indivduals "Punishment Park" is less a historical record as a prescient warning of the potential evolution of the troubles of today. It is also a great example of how a more fluid and less controlled vision of cinema can produce something that is far more powerful, unpredictable and I would even say truthfull than a scripted movie ever can.
Though always bear in mind, it is just a metaphor.
Check it out, rent or buy on dvd, it's an essential piece of viewing and left me stunned and in a self imposed silence for minutes after the movie had ended.
Peace and Hope