Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Never Heard of It: Punishment Park (1971)

Do you remember the last scene of Night of the Living Dead where Ben, just having survived a horrific night of zombie attacks, is murdered by a group of good ol' boys and thrown onto the fire with the rest of the Others? Remember how you felt when you first watched that?
That's exacly what Punishment Park feels like.

Peter Watkins, a English film director, uses the cinéma vérité style to create a naturalistic landscape for his film to take place. Hand held cameras and distinctive editing techniques help form a mock documentary about what the world could have been if history had turned out just a little differently while still commenting on the politcal and social turmoil of the country during the Vietnam War.

According to Watkins, there was a piece of legistlation floating around Washington around the time Nixon ordered the secret bombings on Cambodia that, if passed, would call for the construction of "camps" for those deemed to be "risks to internal security." Punishment Park follows a fictional film crew through one of these camps.

In the film, a group of anti-war protesters and activists are taken to a "punishment park" where they are to remain captive until their sentences run up. In the park, the activists are forced to run sixty miles through the desert over the course of three days with no food or water. They are promised water at the half-way point. If they make it the enitre sixty miles, they'll reach an American flag which represents their freedom. The consequence for not making the entire journey is death. National Guard officers and a group of hardbrow cops chase the fleeing "criminals" through the desert.

Intercut with footage from the desert are scenes involving the pseduo-trials that appear more like the McCarthy hearings than any sort of civilized/fair trial one would hope they'd recieved if they were falsely accused of a crime. The trial scenes are incredibly interesting for the fact that Watkins uses them to address a number of issues and points of view, both pro and anti-war. The editing style in these scenes leave the viewer unable to ignore the filmmaker's point-of-view. I would argue against claims of the director hitting us over the head with his message and would argue instead that the editing serves the film's themes of civil unrest and utter frustration with the political system.

The most powerful speeches of the film is delivered by one of the female prisoners where she states that she supports the American people--not the American government. She doesn't support the government because the government does not support the people.

It's difficult to not make connections between this film and the numerous films chronicling the happenings at Guantamo Bay and Abu Ghraib that have been released this year (Standard Operating Procedure, Taxi to the Dark Side, Harold and Kumar...). As disturbing as it is to learn about the punishment methods of your country, it's pretty clear that putting these events out of your mind isn't going to change anything. These films were made to spark discussions which would hopefully grow into a change-affecting force. What's fascinating about Punishment Park it it's relevance over thirty years after its initial release date. Park attempts to spark conversations as well, and those conversations held in the seventies are still being held today. The characters have changed but the story's still the same. Our country's government is out of control and their power is mind-blowing.
The film asks, "What are we gonna do about it?"

Punishment Park blew me away. Walking in with absolutely no knowledge of the film's style, plot, or politics, created a situation where I could take in the film with fresh eyes, without my preconceptions fogging up my movie-going glasses. If there's any part of you that's interested in American or world history and politics, take the time to watch this film.


Ed Howard said...

Nice. This film is amazing, it really does hammer at you until its political message is virtually impossible to ignore. It's also the rare polemical film where its polemic and its aesthetic are inseparable and complement one another, rather than the message overwhelming the style as so often happens in the more heavy-handed specimens of this type of film.

Watkins is in general very much worth following. He began his career making a pair of brutal, uncompromising documentaries for the BBC: Culloden (a politically conscious reconstruction of Britain's last land battle) and The War Game (a harrowing pseudo-documentary that imagines a possible future in order to rip apart Britain's so-called preparedness for nuclear war). The latter film hit a bit too close to home, and Watkins was canned from the BBC, and has spent the rest of his career marginalized, drifting from country to country, getting funding where he can. He usually adopts a mock-documentary form, incorporating interviews and reconstructions even when the events he's depicting are entirely fictional. Probably his finest film is Edvard Munch, a shockingly original biopic that situates the famous painter in the political and social mores of his time.

Joe Baker said...

Peter Watkins has been (amazingly) well represented on DVD the past year and a half. One of his hardest to find films, "Privilege" from 1967 was just released. As Ed Howard mentions, "Edvard Munch" is one certainly worth seeking out. I was a bit disappointed in it, but then again I'm a huge fan of his paintings and Watkins has a way of weaving these sprawling, pseudo documentary/feature fiction things that require alot of attention. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood when I watched it. I've had his 5 hour "La Commune" in the Netflix queue for awhile now. Maybe time to move it up?

And yes, "The War Game" is pretty stunning.

elgringo said...

Ed -- Really great point abut the polemic and aesthetic elements of the film. I hadn't thought about it like that but it's true, you don't see it like this very often.

Sad what happened to Watkin's career. I can't wait to check out his other films. Maybe his blacklisting pushed him to be more creative. I heard that's what happened to Bobcat Goldwaith.

No...that can't be right.

Joseph B. -- Apparently between Peter Watkins and Ross McElwee, I've stumbled onto quite a documentary cornucopia.

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