Both controversial and relentless in its depiction of suppression and brutality, Punishment Park was heavily attacked by the mainstream press and permitted only the barest of releases in 1971. However, like Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and Robert Kramer’s Ice (1969), Peter Watkins’ film has established itself as one of the key, yet rarely seen, radical films of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Giving voice to the disaffected youth of America that had lived through the campus riots at Berkeley, the trial of the Chicago Seven and who were witnessing the escalation of the Vietnam War, Punishment Park was named by Rolling Stone as one of their top ten films of 1971 and has earned many admirers in the four decades since its release.
Set in a detention camp in an America of the near-future, Punishment Park‘s pseudo-documentary style (continuing Watkins’ subversive innovations with Culloden and The War Game) places a British film crew amongst a group of young students and minor dissidents who have opted to spend three days in ‘Bear Mountain Punishment Park’. The detainees, rather than accept lengthy jail sentences for their ‘crimes’, gamble their freedom on an attempt to reach an American flag — on foot and without water — through the searing heat of the desert. The pursuit of Group 637 — a lethal, one-sided game of cat-and-mouse with a squad of heavily armed police and National Guardsmen — is contrasted with the corrupt trial of Group 638 by a quasi-judicial tribunal.
Unlike Easy Rider‘s mythologising of American counter-culture, Punishment Park’s uncompromising stance, and its uneasy parallels with Guantanamo Bay, retain a powerful and prescient message in the post-9/11 present.
Peter Watkins (born 29 October 1935) is an English film and television director. He was born in Norbiton, Surrey, lived in Sweden, Canada and Lithuania for many years, and now lives in France. He is one of the pioneers of docudrama. His movies, pacifist and radical, strongly review the limit of classic documentary and movies. He mainly concentrate his works and ideas around the mass media and our relation/participation to a movie or television documentary.
Nearly all of Watkins’ films have used a combination of dramatic and documentary elements to dissect historical occurrences or possible near future events. The first of these, Culloden, portrayed the Jacobite uprising of 1745 in a documentary style, as if television reporters were interviewing the participants and accompanying them into battle; a similar device was used in his biographical film Edvard Munch. La Commune reenacts the Paris Commune days using a large cast of French non-actors.
In 2004; he also wrote a book… read more
This film does not aim at being judged as good or bad, but at questioning the resistance methods, even criticizing them. It was very problematic for me to see some of the activists talk about the US government violence in other countries like: Vietnam, and doesn't mention the handcuffs in his/her hands. One of the major cons in the activists' discourse since then is talking about the past crimes not the present ones.
Anthology Film Archives in New York City begins a three-day engagement of a new 35mm print of Peter Watkins' 1970 Punishment Park on Friday