In the summer of 1971, British director Peter Watkins led a band of documentary filmmakers and amateur actors into the Mojave Desert to film “Punishment Park,” his incendiary indictment of the American government’s escalating use of violence against civil rights activists, Vietnam War protesters, and “hippies” of all stripes. Released to almost universal derision, the film’s recent DVD reissue, by Project X and New Yorker Video, endeavors to expose “Punishment” to the large audience it so richly deserves.
The film is shot in the style of a documentary, but the events it depicts belong to an imaginary dystopian future. Political dissent has been criminalized and suspected dissidents are arrested and prosecuted without consideration for due process. Once convicted (and they are invariably convicted), the dissidents are offered the choice of serving lengthy prison sentences or spending four days in the film’s titular wasteland.
The “Park” is a fifty-mile-long desert obstacle course that the convicted must navigate by foot, without the benefit of food or water, while avoiding capture by police officers and National Guardsmen. Dissidents who are captured before completing the course are remitted to police custody to serve out their sentences; those who complete it are promised freedom.
Upon release, social conservatives accused Watkins of sedition, and the critical establishment dismissed the film as—according to one review—a “paranoid fantasy.” Subsequently, “Punishment” did not receive broad distribution—only a handful of American specialty theaters dared screen the film.
As part of their attempt to show this future is not so far from our present, “Punishment” vividly recreates the anarchic violence of the most horrific Vietnam War-era protests. In the film, militant elements among the dissidents resolve to battle the armed police and National Guard patrols with makeshift weapons, and the law enforcement agents respond by indiscriminately firing on their assailants and unarmed dissidents alike.
This carnage is all the more horrifying because the documentary style drives home the narrative. Watkins acts as the documentary’s off-screen narrator, but as the film’s action becomes lethal, he drops his dispassionate, journalistic demeanor and becomes completely unhinged. Imagine “The Blair Witch Project” written and directed by George Orwell—that is the terrifying power of “Punishment.”
“Punishment” makes the transition from celluloid to DVD quite well. Though originally shot on 16 mm stock, the DVD transfer is re-mastered from “blown-up” 35 mm reels. The film’s image clarity is high, and the color separation is quite good. A few frames are marred by dust, fiber, and other artifacts, but the grit merely adds to the experience.
The DVD re-release also includes the film’s original press kit and an interview with Peter Watkins. Both features provide the film with helpful political context. Watkins identifies the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations in Chicago as the direct inspiration for the film—he reveals that several members of the cast were selected for their resemblance to Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale, two of the demonstration’s organizers.
That largely unprofessional cast performs admirably in the film. Watkins wrote little of the actors’ dialogue beforehand. Like fellow Brit filmmaker Mike Leigh, Watkins prefers to give his performers scenarios and allow them to improvise their speech accordingly. This tactic pays off best in the film’s tribunal scenes: the actors’ performances are unforced and wholly convincing. No one is guilty of self-consciously “acting.”
However, neither the film’s excellent DVD transfer, its illuminating extra features, nor its guileless acting are likely to make “Punishment” enjoyable viewing for those who do not share Watkins’ politics. You might call “Punishment” political pornography: if leftist agitprop is your fetish, then “Punishment” is for you. If your politics fall right of center, you will probably wish Watkins and his crew had never returned from the desert.
—Crimson staff writer Bernard L. Parham can be reached ar firstname.lastname@example.org..edu.