(The opening quote…)
“Under the provision of Title 2 of the 1950 Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, the President of the United States of America is still authorized, without further approval by Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an “internal security emergency”. The President is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage. Persons apprehended shall be given a hearing, without right of bail, without the necessity of evidence and shall then be confined to places of detention.”
Peter Watkins, a British filmmaker who would work for the BBC in the 1960’s before finally directing Punishment Park in 1971, was well-known for his documentary-style of making films, a gritty and realistic elegance that felt spontaneous and unscripted.
Punishment Park is a documentary style thriller and drama that is shot in two intertwined acts as a British narrator explains what is going on during the process. One half of the film deals with a group of soldiers leading a group of hippies, nihilists, draft-dodgers and anti-establishment individuals through the desert as a punishment that they chose instead of harsh prison sentencing. The punishment being that they must walk 50 miles across a vast and red-hot desert landscape to reach an American flag. Two hours into their journey they would be followed by the soldiers who would track them down. The idea was that the soldiers would not harm the participants but rather make sure they didn’t try to escape. Alongside this we flick back and forth to scenes of a tribunal in which defendants have the chance to explain themselves to a board, their explanations fall on deaf ears as they are treated harshly for their anti-authority behaviour. The back and forth style works brilliantly and offers a glimpse, not of reality, but rather of what reality might look like if this were to occur.
The cast do a terrific job, and when you realise that most of them have never worked before, or since, in film, it is even more incredible. Played by people who genuinely shared the views and points that their characters spoke of, the passion and anger in the performance feels even more authentic. The narration adds a level of fear and frustration to the process, as we see these terrible and unjust things happening through the eyes and voice of the documentary crew, voiced by Watkins himself, and realise that much like the crew, we can nothing about the violence, misuse of power and hate that the defendants suffer. The arguments between defendants and jury are unscripted, with Watkins merely giving an outline and allowing the actors to debate their points freely and with fervent conviction.
The fictional setting and trial is done with such relentless political extremism that it is hard not to be taken into the film and become agitated at the blind-viewed jury to whom the defendants are forced to explain themselves. The scenes in which the professed offender’s fire back at the judges verbally is wonderfully realised and provides such a divergence from the ill-informed and close-mindedness of those on the panel. Filmed over a three week period, it is obvious that it must have been torturous for the actors during the filming of the scenes in the desert. The characters are hot, dehydrated, angry and afraid whilst being pursued by gun-waving soldiers, police officers and military. These sequences provide almost a “danger of what is about to occur” feeling to the scenes shot in the trial room. It is almost like we are seeing a treacherous and repugnant circle of punishment occur as these men and women are pushed to their limits.
There have been many people who have written the film off as an antagonistic piece of cinema, a film that pokes those who take the side of the judging panel while making heroes of those that oppose war and the American political system, but it is much more than just a filmmakers view of what potentially could occur if certain people too their power too far, it is a powerful and thought-provoking work that wills the viewer to debate their opinions and disagree with aspects of what is on offer. As relevant today as it was 43 years ago when it was made, Punishment Park makes the viewer question and open dialogue with themselves about their interpretations, undoubtedly creating a different reaction in each separate experience.
Watkins obviously felt strongly about injustice, racism, police brutality and human rights in general and it shows in the creation of this film, it is an admirable and massively influential creation, and when you look at the seething opinionated manner of the film, it’s easy to see why it was banned by people who didn’t want these views to be seen. I urge you to seek this out, there is a wonderful release from Eureka on their Masters of Cinema label which is worth whatever the asking price is.