Punishment Park is a 1971 film written and directed by Peter Watkins. It is a pseudo documentary of a British and West German film crew following National Guard soldiers and police as they round up a group of members of the counterculture across the desert.
The movie takes place in 1970. The Vietnam War is escalating and United States President Richard Nixon has just decided on a "secret" bombing campaign in Cambodia. Faced with a growing anti-war movement, President Nixon decrees a state of emergency based on the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, which authorizes federal authorities, without reference to Congress, to detain persons judged to be a "risk to internal security".
Members from the anti-war movement, civil rights movement, feminist movement, conscientious objectors, and Communist party, mostly University students, are arrested and face an emergency tribunal made up of community members. With state and federal jails at their top capacity, the convicted face the option of spending their full conviction time in federal prison or three days at Punishment Park. There, they will have to traverse 60 miles of the hot California desert in three days, without water or food, while being chased by National Guardsmen and law enforcement officers as part of their field training. If they succeed and reach the American flag at the end of the course, they will be set free. If they fail by getting "arrested", they will serve the remainder of their sentence in federal prison.
European film makers follow two groups of detainees as part of their documentary; while Group 637 starts their three day ordeal and learn the rules of the "game", the civilian tribunal begins hearings on Group 638. The film makers conduct interviews with members of Group 637 and their chasers, documenting how both sides become increasingly hostile towards the other. Meanwhile, back at the tent, the film crew documents the trial of Group 638 as they argue their case in vain for resisting the war in Vietnam.
Punishment Park was shot in 16mm with a skeleton crew of 8 people and only 1 Eclair camera. The set was extremely minimal, using only a tent enclosed within a larger tent for the interior scenes. The rest was shot on location at the El Mirage Dry Lake in California. It took only two and a half weeks to shoot. The "newsreel" quality of the film was enhanced by desaturating the color and removing the traditional hard edge of the image through the use of Harrison diffusion filters. The production budget was only $66,000, with an additional $25,000 when the film was converted to 35mm.
Most of the actors had never acted before and were cast according to their political viewpoints regarding the Vietnam War. For example, most of the actors playing the prisoners were political activists and truly against the war. Many of the younger actors were considered radical and had already been arrested and served prison time because of their beliefs. Likewise, some of the actors playing police officers had been police officers in real life. According to Watkins, the use of non professional actors creates a "pseudo actuality."
The film is an example of a uchronie, or alternate history, and of a psychodrama. It is shot in the cinéma vérité style using hand held cameras and improvisation, which lends to its realism and the real temper of the actors flaring. Initially Watkins had a carefully detailed script, but like in his other films, as preproduction progressed, he decided to allow his cast to improvise based on their own instinctive feelings. In his previous films, Watkins had only used improvisation a small amount. Punishment Park was the first time Watkins gave his cast nearly complete control over the dialogue. Their only requirement was to follow a rough outline of sequences drawn up by the director.
On one occasion the participants identified with the situation so completely that the victims began to actually attack the pursuers by throwing rocks resulting in one opening fire in return. The panic reaction of the film team, believing that the actors dropping down had been shot for real, is genuine.
Although the film itself is fictional, many of the elements found within are metaphors of social and political events of the time, such as the trial of the Chicago Seven, the Kent State shootings, police brutality, and political polarization.
One of Watkins' intentions for the film was to provoke strong emotional and intellectual responses. Few people had impartial reactions to the film, the majority of audiences responses were more extreme. As Watkins foresaw, this produced debates after the viewings of the film similar to the debates that take place in the film. There were many extremely negative reactions to film, largely due to the unconventional form or because it was viewed as an indictment against America. Some even linked the film to communism, claiming that the film expresses a Communist philosophy. However, many more people were outraged that a British director would make a film about American political problems in a time of crisis. The film was heavily attacked when it was released at the 1971 New York Film Festival and Hollywood studios refused to distribute it.
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This is probably one of the most important and disturbing para-political films of all time. Available on official DVD release for the first time last year, Punishment Park has recently been uploaded in its entirety to Youtube. Here are the links: