As the UK slips further towards the more and more real prospect of a police state — some, myself included, would argue we’re already there — this 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition of Peter Watkin’s Punishment Park (1971) could not be more timely.
Shot in cinéma-vérité style and presented as pseudo-documentary, its message is all the more powerful, resonating long after the credits have rolled. If made today, the film would be an addition to the found-footage stable, its use of violence likely more graphic, but the message would not be any more impactive for it. In fact, it may well only be January, but I wager that you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more relevant film release this year.
accusations of conspiracy and attempts to undermine national security, followed with prosecution
The premise is minimal. It’s Vietnam-time America, and the paranoid state has ruled that those deemed to be hindering the war effort must face reprimand; membership of any anti-war group or daring to voice disapproval will see accusations of conspiracy and attempts to undermine national security, followed with prosecution by a heavily-biased system that will almost guarantee imprisonment. A chance of reprieve does however come courtesy of a police training ground known as Punishment Park, where, should offenders make it to a US flag before capture, they can see their sentence reduced. The catch is that it’s a near impossible goal, a 50+ mile trek in searing desert heat on foot with no provisions, pursuit made by a drunk-on-power force with no pretensions for mercy.
And so, two threads make up this story: Group 637 attempts to evade said capture, whilst Group 638 faces quasi-tribunal, their English lawyer’s attempts to establish the rules of law ignored in pursuit of the agenda, which is to quash protest, active or otherwise. Both are followed by a British film crew, whose footage entirely makes up the run-time. (An interesting and bittersweet point is that the English represent the only voice of reason…. )
law ignored in pursuit of the agenda, which is to quash protest, active or otherwise
Watkins’ approach to intercut the scenes from each thread was an inspired move. The story in itself, already engaging, but the cutting short of each scene to revisit the other group keeps the viewer hungry for more, whilst highlighting the cyclical nature of the politics. The climax we’re on the edge of our seats for is wholly predictable, but this is of course the key element to the film, that there’s no escape for these characters, regardless. The script could have been a little more eloquent, but again, this demonstrates a point, that these are average people swept up in the system.
They say good art should make you think. So, is it naive to ponder if this, or similar, could happen in the foreseeable future? Two words: Guantanamo Bay. And as the despicable, drunk-on-power Met push and push against boundaries that were once clear, and activists see arrest prior to protest—which is approaching illegality—the answer to that question is, frankly, terrifying.
A deliriously lovely package is the cherry on top to what is already an essential watch. Extras include an introduction by Watkins, and like all releases under Eureka’s superb Masters of Cinema imprint, a booklet featuring essays and reprints. Also, look out for a Michael Moore in the credits! No, it’s not the rotund rabble-rouser, but a nice touch nonetheless.
Naila Scargill is editor and publisher of Exquisite Terror, an academic take on the filmic horror genre. www.exquisiteterror.com