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PUNISHMENT PARK
Blu-ray / DVD . Eureka.

Punishment ParkIn his lengthy introduction to Punishment Park, recorded in 2004, Peter Watkins remains clearly bitter about the way his film was received in America, quoting at length from savage reviews and complaining about its minimal theatrical release. He probably has a point – I doubt the political message of the film went down well with the establishment. But in reality, I suspect hat the main reason the film vanished from sight with a very limited release is a far more prosaic one – Punishment Park is a thoroughly uncommercial proposition, and it’s entirely understandable that distributors, with an eye on the box office, would not be interested (notably, Watkins tells us that the film was pulled from it’s opening theatrical showing after four days, but fails to inform us how many people had actually gone to see the film in that time). It’s a pity, because like all Watkins’ films, this has much to say. But like it or not, most people don’t go to the cinema to be lectured to, and moreso than any of his other pseudo-documentary films, this does feel like hard work.

The film takes its theme from a then still legal piece of US legislation (repealed shortly after the film was made) that allowed for ‘subversives’ to be rounded up and imprisoned in times of emergency. In the film, the Nixon government are using these powers to arrest political protestors, anti-war activists, folk singers, hippies and just about anyone else who doesn’t fit with the status quo, and subject them to McCarthyesque hearings where their guilt has already been decided. They are then offered the choice between lengthy prison sentences, or four days in ‘Punishment Park’. This is an area of desert where prisoners are given three days to reach an American flag 53 miles away, while being chased by the police and army, for whom this is a training exercise. The film then intercuts the hearings of Group 638 with the efforts of the previous group - 637 - who have elected for Punishment Park as they struggle against dehydration and internal bickering as they attempt the impossible – all filmed by a European documentary crew.

Punishment ParkThere’s the potential for biting political satire in this idea – and indeed, it’s been used to greater or lesser effect in films like Battle Royale, The Running Man and others – but unfortunately, Watkins isn’t really interested in entertainment. That’s an entirely valid approach to take, but it inevitably restricts the number of people who will hear your message. Instead, his documentary style – with improvised dialogue from non-professional actors – certainly makes the points he wants, but does so in such a blunt, relentless manner that it makes the film very hard work. If this was a genuine documentary, such an approach might be valid, but the viewer is constantly aware that this is a fiction, however plausible and authentic, and that inevitably affects the level of outrage you might feel at the injustice of it all. One or two of the hippies are also incredibly annoying, which doesn’t help.

With America still running a concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay, and with anti-capitalist protests polarising opinion in US politics, there’s no denying that Punishment Park is as relevant today as it ever was. And if you can deal with the unforgiving structure of the film, it is a fascinating, thought-provoking, if polemical look at the political conflicts of the time, when protest was a much riskier proposition than today, with activists and demonstrators killed by the police more frequently than you might think. But just as most of the film has opposing voices shouting at each other without listening, so this film often feels like someone screaming their opinion at you for ninety minutes. And honestly, even if you agree with that opinion, after a while the hysterical level of it all begins to wear you down. While Watkins’ other work like The War Game, Culloden, Privilege and even Gladiators make their political points with a varying degree of subtlety that allows the message to be heard all the more effectively, Punishment Park pushes the envelope too far.

All that said, the film should be seen, and this Masters of Cinema release is the way to see it. For a 1971 16mm production, it looks remarkably fresh, and alongside the aforementioned intro, there’s a commentary from academic Joseph A. Gomez that is less dry than similar efforts, and the usual high quality 40-page booklet.

DAVID FLINT

BUY IT NOW (UK)

 

 

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