Set in a future where America’s war in Vietnam has led to the setting up of detention camps to hold dissidents, director Peter Watkins’ 1971 pseudo-documentary involves a British film crew, led by Watkins himself, following one group of radicals who accept three days in a ‘punishment park’ over a prison sentence. But it’s not going to be easy. The group are on foot, have no food or water, and cannot ask the assistance of the documentary crew as they cross 60-miles of desert to reach their target – an American flag. And standing in their way – squads of law enforcement officers waiting to take them down…
Punishment Park might seem like a dystopian sci-fi in the vein of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or a futuristic take on the classic adventure The Most Dangerous Game, but it’s actually a despairing indictment of repression in a country that boasts of freedom, liberty and human rights for all. Mercilessly attacked for being an anti-American paranoid fantasy on its release in 1971, Punishment Park remained virtually unseen in that country for over three decades until it was finally released on DVD in 2005.
To fully understand the film, you need to know what was happening to America at the end of the 1960s. As militant elements within the peace movement against the Vietnam War were becoming vocal, the Johnson and Nixon administrations turned to show trials and police force to silence them.
Using an actual piece of US legislation from the 1950s, which provided for the setting up of detention facilities for communist subversives, Watkins structured his pseudo-documentary around the stories of real-life protestors as told by non-actors. The effect – combined with the brutal desert setting (Bear Mountain in California) and Watkins as a Louis Theroux-styled investigative reporter – made it all seem real. And all too real for some, as Danish TV thought it was an actual news report. But there’s certainly no winking to the camera in Watkins’ film. Instead, he challenges the documentary film form, making us the viewer complicit in the terrible, brutal acts that unfold.
Post 9/11 and Punishment Park still makes for uneasy viewing – especially when you think about the abuse, brutality, humiliation and loss of civil liberties that have gone in places like Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, it remains a powerful tour-de-force that needs to be experienced and debated once again.