Punishment Park (1971)

Directed by Peter Watkins

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In Punishment Park, those arrested for crimes agains the country have three days to make their way a couple dozen miles to a designated location in order to earn their freedom.  They are mostly nonviolent protestors of the Vietnam War, but by a tribunal and the U.S. government they are seen as enemies of the state and are treated as such.

The film is a mockumentary in which a European camera crew is sent to document this desert camp and observe the supposed fairness of how the U.S. deals with its subversives.  We follow a journey of a group of these subversives as they struggle through the desert, fighting mostly dehydration.  That is, at least, until one of the cops is found dead, and the other officers use this almost as eager justification for doing harm to prisoners whom they clearly loathe.

While this is going on we watch a hastily-made court of law, confined within a tent somewhere nearby, in which those in power hold debates with those arrested.  The film was made with plenty of improvisation, and director Peter Watkins has said that he found people to act who more or less agreed with their points of view presented onscreen.  What we have, then, is an interesting portrait of characters fighting to express their clashing views on the state of affairs in the U.S.

It follows what you might expect, but it is no less engaging.  Nonviolent activists struggle to deal with a clearly unfair turn of events, in which their innocence is not up for debate, only the nature of their punishment.  They are given the opportunity to go straight to prison or to spend three days in Punishment Park to try and gain their freedom.  They all pick the latter, but we see how deadly and similarly unfair this game is.

On the whole this is quite infuriating, and it shows a conflict that is always pretty relevant at least here in America.  We see plenty of fighting, verbal or otherwise, and the lasting takeaway I have from the film is a shot of a police officer with hard set eyes that suggest there is no room for doubt in his mind.  These are characters who loathe what the other stands for, on both sides, and there is a frighteningly large gap between how they view the world and each other.  Each side strongly believes the other is ruining just about everything.

That kind of divide in some ways feels impossible.  How can people so similar (overall) who live in the same place and in the grand scheme of things aren’t so much older or younger than each other see things so differently?  When you break it down, of course, it becomes easier to understand but no less emotionally taxing to think about.

Such a divide was on full display during the Vietnam War, and it certainly is today too.  In other times it’s always been there, though the visibility might not have been.

The film does take a side, though just its existence hints at where the filmmaker is coming from.  The mockumentary is made to challenge the existing power structure, so of course it finds a kindred spirit in the people of the film who find themselves beaten, suppressed and ultimately hunted for sport.

It’s a striking form of commentary that presents its circumstance and premise as if it were as real as anything else going on in the world.  And with the riots and deaths of young protestors and students in Chicago and at Kent State, the death and destruction of this film doesn’t feel any less tangible.

Up Next: Spielberg (2017), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town (2017)

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