Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Deja Vu and Despair: Revisiting ‘Punishment Park’

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday June 30, 2006

If you’ve seen or intend to see The Road to Guantanamo, reviewed in this space last week, it might be a good time to revisit Peter Watkins’ 1971 Punishment Park. The two films, 35 years apart, provide perspectives on the abuse of power that are both complementary and contradictory. 

Watkins, an Englishman, came to the United States in 1969 to make a series of documentaries on American history, but the project was eventually canceled. Instead he was inspired by the political turbulence of the era to create Punishment Park, a cinema verité depiction of a government crackdown on Vietnam-era dissidents. The film was released last year on DVD by New Yorker Video as part of a series called “The Cinema of Peter Watkins.” Other films in the series include The War Game, Culloden, The Gladiators and the biopic Edvard Munch. 

Punishment Park imagines a scenario in which President Nixon invokes his rights under the 1950 Internal Security Act and establishes detention camps for dissidents, militants and draft-dodgers—indeed, anyone who has committed an act of “sabotage” or who the government has reasonable cause to believe has the intention of committing such an act. Substitute “terrorism” for “sabotage,” pour yourself a stiff drink, then settle in for 90 minutes of deju vu and despair. 

The storm of criticism unleashed upon the film’s release would be no less anachronistic than the content in today’s heated political climate. The film was assailed as an anti-American polemic, a dangerous and subversive treatise that would provide aid and comfort to the enemy. 

The film cuts back and forth between two lines of action. In the first, a group of detainees faces a right-wing citizen tribunal in a series of improvised confrontations based loosely on the trial of the Chicago Seven. The actors—amateurs selected for their appearance and political views—improvised the dialogue, a creative decision that both helps and hinders the movie, lending the action a degree of immediacy while simultaneously rendering the characters as two-dimensional stereotypes.  

Each prisoner is questioned in turn before each is given the choice of a lengthy prison term or a few days in Punishment Park, a vast expanse of desert in which they will be left to wander while the military police hunt them down in a sort of state-sanctioned version of “The Most Dangerous Game.” 

The contentious environment inside the interrogation tent is further established by the details of photographer Joan Churchill’s framing of the scene: The detainees are disheveled and unkempt and face their interrogators while surrounded by the trappings of power: Guns, billy clubs and uniformed officers lurk always in the background. And while they sit alone in the heat, facing a torrent of abuse, the tribunal’s members pass around a pitcher of ice water, and are later shown taking a break while munching at a catered buffet. 

The second line of action features the previous group of detainees, who have already faced interrogation and have opted for Punishment Park. In a series of interviews with the narrator (voiced by Watkins), the prisoners discuss their predicament as they run from and eventually confront their captors. 

In addition to the cross-cutting and mise-en-scene, the film employs a series of techniques designed to increase the pace and heighten the dramatic tension. The presence of the narrator/filmmaker sets up a confrontational dynamic between the players and the camera, and when the narrator finally drops his objective distance and becomes part of the action, expressing his outrage to the military police who have shot down several detainees in the desert, Watkins raises challenging questions about the role of media, the value of journalistic objectivity, and the civic duty of a democratic citizenry. 

It may be difficult in these times to suspend our disbelief long enough to accept that the federal government would allow media access to such an exercise; Watkins seems not to have anticipated the corporate efficiency or the sheer Orwellian chutzpah of the current administration, which has learned the lessons of the past and imposes severe restrictions on the press. 

The Road to Guantanamo, criticized by some for not telling the government’s side of the story, could not do so because the government simply refuses to tell it. Watkins’ film, on the other hand, is a product of its era, a time when politicians had yet to learn these lessons, allowing their dirty laundry to be aired at the 1968 Democratic Convention, at Kent State, in Vietnam and elsewhere. In that sense, Punishment Park is almost nostalgic.