Cult British filmmaker Peter Watkins made the 1971 pseudo-documentary ‘Punishment Park’ as a reaction to the ‘revolutionary’ events in the United States in the late ’60s, in particular the wave of anti-Vietnam-fuelled activism, as well as protests against the suppression of the Black Panther movement and the shooting by the National Guard of students at Kent State University. Intended as an analysis and illustration of (US) state terrorism, the film imagines a futuristic correction facility out in the Mojave desert, where ‘security risks’ are gathered and sentenced by an unconstitutional court to potentially fatal punishments involving forced treks, without water, through the desert. Seen today, the film can be viewed in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s a prime example of Watkins’ innovative, radical approach to filmmaking. His use of fictional scenarios to examine actual political events and practices – here the reactionary tendencies of the Nixon era – has a hyper-Swiftian effect, whereby artistic exaggeration highlights the real to an intense degree. Likewise, his considered use of non-professionals as actors – real National Guardsmen, draft protesters and black activists – intensifies the emotional atmosphere, the sense of immediacy and the processes of audience identification. Interestingly, the improvised outpourings – ‘the US is as psychotic as it is powerful!’ screams one defandant – now seem very much like historical documents themselves. Finally, and more problematically, there’s the question of whether Watkins’ film succeeds as pure, tensely-structured, drama – will the two groups of dissidents survive? Will they tear themselves apart in trying to do so? Personally, I think not. But this is fascinating, gut-wrenching and thought-provoking filmmaking all the same.
Cast and crew