Sunday, October 16, 2005

Punishment Park

“What seems quite clear now is that instead of trying to bring the estranged and exploited Americans (such as these people) back into the national community, the administration has chosen to accept and exploit the present division within the country and to side with what it considers the majority. Instead of a politics of reconciliation, it has chosen the politics of polarization”

It is impossible not to have a political reaction when watching Peter Watkin’s superb faux-documentary Punishment Park. The film features approximately two-dozen people, which are not so much fully fleshed out characters, but rather political positions. The film makes no bones in being clearly allegorical. This in no way stops it from being an intense emotional ride over the course of its tightly edited 88 minutes.

Filmed in 1970 and set somewhere around 1975, the film depicts a future America that is still at war in the region of Vietnam, and is also bombing Seoul in South Korea. Domestic unrest has increased to the point where almost as many enforcement officers are required on the home front to keep the youth and counter-culture movement under control. Prisons are overcrowded, and more and more local police officers are required as are National Guard and federal Rangers. The solution to this problem is found by President Nixon in an obscure piece of government legislation called the McCarran Act. This allows for the country to hold political prisoners and draft dodgers in detention camps without charges or evidence. The prisoners are then sentenced by a Senator (not a judge) and a tribunal of citizens to a lengthy prison sentence. Or they can spend 3 days in Punishment Park.

Punishment Park is a survival game of sorts; involving an 80 km hike through the scorching California desert of Bear National Park. The destination is an American flag. Any of the prisoners who reach the flag are (presumably) free to go. After a few hours head start, law enforcement officers pursue the prisoners and attempt to arrest them. Being arrested means the prisoners do their previous prison sentence. If, however, there is any resistance to arrest, the officers are allowed to use whatever force they deem necessary. Punishment Park is the brilliantly disturbing solution to the nations problems, as it frees up prison space and simultaneously provides a training ground for the various branches of law enforcement to quell the very problems that put the prisoners in the Park in the first place.

The film opens with no credits or titles. A dry voice-over narration (done by the director, Peter Watkins) identifies that this is a British TV documentary on Punishment Parks. An American flag flaps solitarily in the desert wind. The very officers who will soon be hunting them down are trucking Group #637 out to the starting point of the course. Radio news reports give updates on the 100,000 American soldiers being activated from the reserves (notably only 20,000 are going to South East Asia). The prisoners are given the ground-rules for the game before being sent off without any food or water.

Over the course of the chase, prisoner Group #637 forms into factions, the pacifists, the militants and a group somewhere in between (billed in the end credits as the semi-militants). Initially, this is intercut with the head cop, Officer Edwards, giving the trainees a firearms demonstrations (while they wait allow for the prisoner head start). It is compelling and chilling material. But Punishment Park is quite a bit more ambitious than just this. It was filmed completely (and seamlessly) with non-professional actors, and shot with a single camera in a flawless vérité style. Things get more complex when another layer of editing is added: Group #638 is shown as they come up in front of the detention tribunal. Each individual in the group is allowed to say a few words before sentencing. These comments, which often end up in shouting matches between the convicted and the tribunal are further spliced amongst the police hunt for Group #637. The whole package has such a complex back-and-forth, multi-thread structure with in-the-moment, face to the camera interviews of the hunted prisoners and the pursuing cops, that it feels like it was made in 2000, not 1970. There is a flair for subtle manipulation that is way ahead of its time, making Michael Moore look like a kindergartener.

Punishment Park has sadly been completely ignored over the years (And Watkin’s as a justifiable chip on his shoulder about it if you watch the interview included on the DVD). It is interesting that a similarly themed film, Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor’s Billy Jack, was released the same year, 1971, around the time Watkins’ film was screening at Cannes. Billy Jack was a massive popular success, and Punishment Park couldn’t even get a single booking at an American cinema for longer than a day or two. At one point in both films the same quotation from Adolph Hitler is used as a climatic talking point. Billy Jack’s story of a pacifist hippie school defended by a spiritual tough-guy is dated to the point of ridiculousness, while Punishment Park barely shows any age at all. Some references to the Chicago Seven trial contained within the hearings of Group #638 are probably lost on a modern audience, but the politics of civil liberties and free speech contained therein, and the sophistication of the films execution are probably as relevant today than they were in 1971. The cynical 21st century take would probably be to televise the trials and the hunt in reality television form. In fact, if there is one weakness in the film, it is the established right-wingers on the tribunal and the lefties on trial getting into rhetorical shouting matches that would not be too far off daytime talk show if the politics were not so highfalutin. Both speakers are always talking past one another. This is underscored in a scene where the tribunal folks are on lunch break and the chatter exasperatedly to one another about the ‘crazy youth.’ One hilarious interviewee compares young people today like racehorses that have to be whipped into shape, lest they run right off the track.

While Punishment Park offers the illusion of fair and balanced by giving equal screen time to the repressed and the establishment, it is clear that Watkins sides with the youth. It is fascinating (and clever) to watch the documentary film crew slowly lose their objectivity as the game gets more and more out of hand and the cops get more violent. The British director/narrator begins angrily shouting at the cops that all of this is going to be seen all over the world (the cops could care less). It is ironic and tragic that in fact Punishment Park the film has not.

Notes on the DVD:

Eureka! Video has included Punishment Park in their Masters of Cinema series (#21), and done a bang-up job with the release. The DVD is PAL, but has no region encoding. The video transfer is sharp (to the point of graininess, but this is probably more from the 16mm blow-up to 35mm stock). There is a compelling 31 page booklet which describes just how much of a film experiment it was at the time, and offers an in-depth view of the politics as put in context with the times. There is a 30 minute video introduction by the director filmed in 2004. Peter Watkins is unsparingly hostile with his views on the state the modern mass media (his axe to grind is pretty darn justifiable though), and is particularly annoyed with the treatment most of the world has given not just this film. Cinema Professor Joseph Gomez, who wrote a book on Watkins’ career and offers a feature length audio commentary on the disc describes him as one of the most overlooked masters of cinema, and I’m certainly in agreement with that statement. Punishment Park is worth the effort to track down.


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