Punishment Park (1970) makes for depressing viewing in its prefiguring of the many controls imposed by the US government since September 11th 2001: the formation of the Department of Homeland Security; creation of the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib detention camps; and the Christian right’s own jihad, the ‘War on Terror’.
The film opens with the stark image of a lone US flag, stranded atop a mountain ridge in an arid area of south-western California. A voiceover tells us that due to the presumed threat of insurgent action inside its own borders, the US government, at the behest of the President, has enacted a series of laws (similar to the 1950 Internal Security Act – the McCarran Act) that overrule constitutional rights, under the guise of protecting its citizens. The mere suspicion of anti-governmental activity is enough to warrant arrest and incarceration without charge, competent legal representation or trial by jury. When found guilty, the convicted have a choice: a maximum security prison or three days in the Bear Mountain Punishment Park. A gruelling trial by attrition, Punishment Park requires that each group of offenders reach the American flag, located 53 miles away, without water or transport and within an imposed time limit. In pursuit are an armed force of police officers and state troopers. Capture or failure to reach the flag before the deadline expires will result in the resumption of each offender’s sentence.
The film inter-cuts between two groups of accused. Group 637 have already been found guilty and are preparing to enter Punishment Park. Group 638 have just arrived at the kangaroo court and are about to be tried for their crimes. Following both are a documentary team, whose narrator contextualises each group’s predicament with an increasing tone of unease and, eventually, shock at the injustice meted out to the young detainees.
Filmed with one camera, on a miniscule budget and with a collection of mostly non-professional actors, Peter Watkins’ pseudo-documentary is a startlingly subversive film. The performances strike a degree of verisimilitude that belies the film’s fictional roots; discourses between accuser and accused contains a real sense of the urgency of the political situation during the first term of Nixon’s presidency, referencing Vietnam, the Black Panther movement and the shootings at Kent State University. Frequently improvised, the scenes convey the anger of both the state and its detractors at each other’s beliefs. If it occasionally veers towards the hysterical, or appears clichéd in some characters’ similarity to icons of the time (Pat Nixon, Bobby Seale, and in the court’s unwavering and autocratic head, Judge Julius Hoffman), its rally cry against the encroachment of basic human rights has lost none of its power.
Watkins’ ingenuity in overcoming budget restrictions is at its most impressive in his manipulation of the soundtrack. Throughout the film unseen military aircraft fly overhead, their noise drowning out dialogue. Sporadic gunfire also adds to the oppressive atmosphere, with no indication given as to who the intended target is. The noise intensifies the sense of helplessness the accused feel. Their only means of orientation as they trek through the severe heat of the desert is to be constantly moving away from the sounds of the all-pervasive military machine.
It is rare that a film made over three decades ago should prove to be so prescient today. Re-released as the centrepiece of a small retrospective of Peter Watkins’ work at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (followed by a DVD release from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label in the Autumn), Punishment Park is a timely reminder of the power of political film-making. And screening alongside Culloden, The War Game and La Commune, it reinforces Peter Watkins’ position as one of this country’s finest film-makers.