Punishment Park

90 minutes, 1970, US, directed by Peter Watkins

Before one even considers the form and content of his singularly powerful body of work, the remarkable oeuvre of internationalist film-maker Peter Watkins is testament to the many inspirational qualities this committed artist has displayed, over four decades and in the face of concerted institutional and media hostility. Standing as a model of both intense authorial focus and genuinely democratic, collective and communal creativity, as well as a vital example of how uncompromising projects can be realised at a certain scale outside of all formal funding channels, his filmic achievement has been to embed the most radical of social and media critiques directly into narratives of great sophistication, engagement and energy, in such a way that any serious viewing of his 14 films cannot fail to encounter the larger political and philosophical concerns that Watkins has sought to address throughout his life.

Now, 35 years on from its original, brief and actively suppressed release, his startlingly prescient and sadly all too relevant parable of US authoritarianism Punishment Park is once again being made available in the UK and internationally. Charting in his trademark dramatic verite style (deploying the frame of a television crew documenting the action from inside the narrative) the brutal eradication of dissidents in the desert landscape of the title, it has, despite its ongoing relevance, been among his least seen features, and yet is also one of his most accessible and viscerally disturbing statements on the endemic violence at the heart of modern Western society and its hierarchical power structures.

Punishment Park © Chartwell Artists 1970

Brilliantly filmed on one camera by Nick Broomfield’s regular collaborator Joan Churchill, it imagines a barely heightened 1960s in which, the Vietnam War escalating, “President Nixon declares a state of national emergency and Federal authorities are given the power to detain persons judged to be a ‘risk to national security’. In a wilderness region in California, a civilian tribunal passes penal sentences on groups of activists but offers the alternative of three days in Punishment Park.” Granted freedom if they can reach an American flag, planted 53 miles away across 100-degree desert, and travelling without water, the activists are pursued, in increasingly bloody fashion, by police and national guard soldiers set on preventing them from completing the ‘course’.

The parallels, even if currently slightly exaggerated (but becoming daily less so), with state abuses in the US (and further afield) today are obvious. However, the film, among the most articulate statements of political dissent in cinema, is also a compelling and profoundly unsettling drama of terrifying immediacy and resonance.

Alongside his other astonishing achievements (The War Game, Edvard Munch and The Journey, to name only three) it should speak to, and be seen, by all those keen to experience work that integrates its intentions, means of making and filmic language so completely that it stands both as a vision of its time but also as an enduring document of freethinking resistance.

Peter Watkin’s website

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