Pseudo-Doc Punishment Park Takes Place Tomorow, Yesterday Or Five Years From Now

One of the benefits of the “DVD revolution” has been the chance it’s given us to view obscure movies—Punishment Park, for instance.

Punishment Park is a pseudo-documentary. Initially released in 1971, the film has been described as one of the most important political films of the 70s.

According to the film’s director, Peter Watkins, the film was “a personal statement about the psychic condition of contemporary society.” However, the incorporation of actual happenings between 1967 and 1970 heighten the illusion of reality in the film. The war in Vietnam is escalating, there are massive public protests in the United States and President Nixon has declared a state of emergency and has activated the Internal Security Act, which warrants the arrest of persons seen as being “a risk to internal security.”

The storyline of the film circles around a group that discovers the rules of a “game” they must partake in as an alternative to their confinement in a penitentiary. The group is promised liberty if they win.

The movie is presented in a cross-cutting fashion, with two parallel settings playing out; one in which the prisoners are being tried and express their revolt against the American government and the other set at Punishment Park, where the prisoners have chosen to purge their conviction during three days of living hell. They are going to participate in an all-too-real game in which they will have to cross the desert in three days with no food or water. The prisoners are confronted with 85 km of desert, at the end of which stands an American flag that, if reached on time, will exempt them from their prison sentence.

An extra obstacle is presented to them; they must avoid being captured by the chasing military, as they risk being transported to federal prisons to serve their sentence. They are given a two-hour lead, and then the chase begins for the soldiers in jeeps. What the prisoners do not know is that the officials have changed the rules of the game so that no one can actually win.

Watkins began his production with a detailed script, but quickly discarded the script in order to cast individuals who would react and speak based on their own feelings and experiences.

The film was met with hostility from audiences. It was widely misinterpreted as being anti-American. One critique even stated that it had “the Communist philosophy.” Other criticisms focused around Watkins and, being an Englishmen, his daring to make a film about political problems in America.

Watkins responded to these attacks by clarifying that the movie did not represent an attack on America per se, and in fact was not aimed at a uniquely American audience. The confrontations depicted are proper to any society, and Watkins simply used a time of repression in the United States to communicate his vision, which makes this film neither “hopelessly dated nor thematically limited.”

Watkins stated that Punishment Park takes place “tomorrow, yesterday, or five years from now.”

Cinema Politica presents Punishment Park / Room H-110 / Feb. 21 / 7:00 p.m. / Free but donations are encouraged

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 23, published February 15, 2011.

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