Punishment Park


Punishment Park (1971)
Director: Peter Watkins
Actors: Patrick Boland, Kent Foreman, Carmen Argenziano
Runtime: 88 min

Punishment Park is a dystopia (reverse utopia) in which US President Richard Nixon declares a state of emergency, suspends all civil rights, the police arrests thousands of people and deliverers them to military tribunals which are adjudicating with no evidence and without the right to defense or appeal.

The court basically gives you two options: either you get tremendous prison sentence or you choose to spend four days in the “Punishment Park”. Everyone chose this second option without even assuming what awaits them there. Soon upon arrival they realize that the choice offered to them was no choice, because they are faced with suffering and death. Their tormentors are repeatedly referring to the fact that the convicted made this decision themselves, they themselves choose “Punishment Park” instead of a lengthy prison sentence, although (injustice aside) it is obvious that properly informed they would have never made that choice. Exceptional metaphor for many life situations everyone of us experienced.

Awareness that, through the creation of false alternatives, capitalist system usually allows us only to choose between two evils, and the understanding that the game is rigged from the beginning and always had been rigged, today can seem as common places. It is therefore necessary to bear in mind that the movie was made in 1971 at the culmination of mass awakening and great social upheaval in the United States in late 1960s and early 1970s, and was inspired by the brutal repression today used to suppress the Anti-war movement, the student movement and the Human rights movement.

“Punishment Park” was shot in a very realistic pseudo-documentary style, typical for Peter Watkins, from the perspective that TV crew from Europe would have in making a TV story on the trials and the “Punishment Park”. Special attention was paid to the argumentation presented on trials and in dialogues by members of the repressive state apparatus, judges, prosecutors, police officers on one side and on the other side arrestees that are mostly part of social movements, revolutionaries, members of the New Left or confused hippies.

Despite the fact this is a fiction movie, it is very difficult to shake off the impression that this Peter Watkins’ pseudo-documentary isn’t just a dystopia, but a prophecy of the dark future.

You can download this film or watch it online.

1 thought on “Punishment Park”

  1. Peter Watkins was attempting to make a film about the American Revolution in his creative manner of having a 1960’s camera crew at a historic event. When he started the country was clearly in a revolution. But as repression came down he changed the direction of the film to depict “a near future”.
    The trial scenes are inspired by the repression in the Chicago courts after the Democratic National Convention witnessed a brutal police campaign against protesters. The convention was in the public eye revealing how brutal and mean the police were. The court case was a big deal for activists nation wide as it unraveled. As is the case often in the US the authorities refused to apologize the transgressions of the rule of law and sought to punish the people harmed by the police violence.
    Also at the time FBI, police and other operatives attacked other leaders of the New Left. People of color especially. The Black Panthers, the New Lords and later American Indian Movement had people who where harassed and physically harmed, jailed and killed. Also activists of SDS and people who worked on underground newspapers found similar treatment.
    The film also takes note of the Kent State and Jackson State shootings of protesters by armed agents of the state. In the last act of the film soldiers shoot a half dozen of the prisonners. Most of them are running for their lives, a couple throwing rocks.
    The film had a very limited release and was heavily criticized for being “paranoid” when in fact it was revealing what was happening just under most people’s radar.
    What the film does thats really unique is have many non actors play the characters and they give voice to their perception of what is happening. Not all of the dissidents have a uniform outlook. Some pacifists and some are militants–the spectrum they crate challenges Hollywood’s usual two dimensional depections. Also some characters of the army expression empathy for the prisoners. Where as most of the authorities do come across as judgemental, impatient, bigoted and hateful.
    The tribunal scenes have middle management people of privilege admonishing the prisoners as they suppress any real dialog before they pass sentence on them. This awareness that the production is working on and various other touches makes the film a very intelligent piece of work. It is loaded with dozens of quote able scenes and reveals the dramatic tension that is a part of resistance.

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