Pete’s Peek | Why does the 1970′s film Punishment Park continue to upset America?

Set in a future where America’s war in Vietnam has led to the setting up of detention camps to hold dissidents, director Peter Watkins’ 1971 pseudo-documentary involves a British film crew, led by Watkins himself, following one group of radicals who accept three days in a ‘punishment park’ over a prison sentence. But it’s not going to be easy. The group are on foot, have no food or water, and cannot ask the assistance of the documentary crew as they cross 60-miles of desert to reach their target – an American flag. And standing in their way – squads of law enforcement officers waiting to take them down…

Punishment Park might seem like a dystopian sci-fi in the vein of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or a futuristic take on the classic adventure The Most Dangerous Game, but it’s actually a despairing indictment of repression in a country that boasts of freedom, liberty and human rights for all. Mercilessly attacked for being an anti-American paranoid fantasy on its release in 1971, Punishment Park remained virtually unseen in that country for over three decades until it was finally released on DVD in 2005.

To fully understand the film, you need to know what was happening to America at the end of the 1960s. As militant elements within the peace movement against the Vietnam War were becoming vocal, the Johnson and Nixon administrations turned to show trials and police force to silence them.

Using an actual piece of US legislation from the 1950s, which provided for the setting up of detention facilities for communist subversives, Watkins structured his pseudo-documentary around the stories of real-life protestors as told by non-actors. The effect – combined with the brutal desert setting (Bear Mountain in California) and Watkins as a Louis Theroux-styled investigative reporter – made it all seem real. And all too real for some, as Danish TV thought it was an actual news report. But there’s certainly no winking to the camera in Watkins’ film. Instead, he challenges the documentary film form, making us the viewer complicit in the terrible, brutal acts that unfold.

Post 9/11 and Punishment Park still makes for uneasy viewing – especially when you think about the abuse, brutality, humiliation and loss of civil liberties that have gone in places like Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, it remains a powerful tour-de-force that needs to be experienced and debated once again.

Punishment Park is out on Dual Format (Blu-ray and DVD) through The Masters of Cinema Series

SPECIAL FEATURES
• Newly restored HD transfer.
• 30-minute introduction by Peter Watkins, filmed from 2004.
• Audio commentary by Dr Joseph A Gomez.
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
• 40-page booklet with two essays and reprints by Watkins.

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2 Responses to Pete’s Peek | Why does the 1970′s film Punishment Park continue to upset America?

  1. freerockcity says:

    As a film geek living in the USA, I fully agree with the assessment of Punishment Park as a “despairing indictment of repression in a country that boasts of freedom, liberty and human rights for all”. However, I don’t agree that it “remains virtually unseen in that country four decades on.” The film was released on dvd here in 2005, and since then I’ve seen it written up numerous times and ever-present on the shelves of the last remaining movie rental stores (big city rental stores anyway). So it’s not that hard to see here, and I actually know quite a few people who came to Peter Watkins by way of this film (oddly enough). And while I can’t recall a screening of it (or any other Watkins film) in the local cinemas, it’s far more common than you’d think.

    • peter says:

      Thanks freerockcity for your email and for bringing us up to date about the availability of the film on DVD in the US. Our piece was based on Watkins’ first-hand account, which was filmed in 2004, in which he spoke about the film not getting any kind of release over the past three decades. We have now clarified our statement. Hope you enjoyed our review, despite the oversight.

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