Punishment Park

(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)

Made a decade before Cannibal Holocaust and generations before Blair Witch, Punishment Park is a 1971 mockumentary by the British director Peter Watkins, released as a Blu-ray/DVD by the Eureka label. While it was issued as a Eureka DVD a few years ago, Punishment Park is topical for two reasons. Gareth Edwards cited it as an inspiration on his own mockumentary film, Monsters; and Watkins’s premise anticipates Battle Royale and next month’s film The Hunger Games, in which governments slaughter their truculent young in militarised sports. The difference is that Battle Royale and Hunger Games are set in future or alternate times, but Punishment Park takes place in the (then) present day; the U.S. administration during Vietnam.

As with Watkins’s other films, the action and dialogue are improvised by mostly non-actors; the film crew numbered no more than ten. In the introduction to the new release, Watkins gives special praise to photographer Joan Churchill (who would become a regular collaborator with Nick Broomfield), who ran through a baking desert carrying a bulky 16-mm camera. The film has two cross-cutting strands. In one, America’s old and young generations spit their loathing across kangaroo tribunals in a makeshift army tent. The accused youngsters range from a foul-mouthed rich-girl singer declaiming “blow up buildings, watch them fall!,” to a militant in the “People’s Army.” In a rare moment of levity, one interrogator reflects that this generation needs “more spank and less Spock,” referring to the pop-pediatrician rather than the Vulcan.

In the other strand, we follow a group of undesirables who’ve been sentenced to long prison terms, but who have chosen the alternative of Punishment Park. This involves scrambling down rocky slopes and tottering through fifty miles of Californian desert in the choking heat, while being chased by the National Guard and a couple of documentary cameramen. As in Watkins’s other films, the documentary format is accepted as a stylised dramatic licence. We never see the people behind the cameras, and we don’t wonder if (a) they’re dehydrating with the fugitives, or alternatively (b) stocked up with waterbottles which they impartially decline to pass round.

Officially, Punishment Park is an exercise in controlled discipline, with the authorities not using violence unless provoked. In reality, Punishment Park is an oven-temperature slaughterhouse, with the attitude captured by one scornful guardsman – “They’re doing what they want to do, I’m doing what I want to do” – with the difference, of course, that the guardsman has the gun. Only occasionally do we see faces that aren’t simply hateful, such as a courteous woman student explaining her non-violent dissidence, or a traumatised boy guardsman, desperate to explain that he killed an unarmed runner by accident.

Director Peter Watkins denounces narcotic narrative pop-culture. For that reason, he would probably despise seeing his film discussed here, in the context of genre SF and horror films. (Watkins’s best-known mockumentary, 1965’s The War Game, also fell into genre territory; it envisioned a Cold War nuclear strike against Britain.) Yet, seen in the debased terms of genre, Punishment Park is a gripping, if tonally monotonous drama, raw and dust-blown. It holds up less well in its intended terms, as an exercise in viewer manipulation and provocation. That’s not because its tricks have been stolen by film-makers with agendas no loftier than shouting “Boo!” Rather, it’s because Punishment Park’s scenario leaves no room for ambiguity, uncertainty or self-questioning. It offers only the capitalised slogan-bawling of any website bulletin-board.

Watkins argues that the Punishment Park scenario is “essentially” the same as many real-world abuses, from the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbour to today’s torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. But Punishment Park is diluted as a political film, because it shows a fiction. Its allegory is not just slanted but created to serve a hectoring agenda, rather than commenting on a real-world horror. In his introduction to the new edition, Watkins scorns the naïve distinctions between fact and fiction. From his perspective, the “reality” we consume through the mass media is a lie greater than Punishment Park; but again Watkins is preaching exclusively to the radical choir, who wouldn’t need to watch his film in the first place. Eureka’s extras play up Punishment Park’s proud history of controversy, from the refusal of American distributors to play it in cinemas, to its bilious reception from contemporary reviewers. Woe betide anyone who wonders if these anti-establishment credentials might be inflated or overstressed to prove the film’s place in history.

(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.