“Would you like me to define what a politician is?”
Made during the Vietnam War, Punishment Park from director Peter Watkins extends the social unrest of the times and presents a society in which dissidents are rounded up–mainly for their opinions, and then subjected to tribunals and punishment. Heavily influenced by the Kent State incident, the film is set in an America in which Nixon activates the 1950 McCarran Act, allowing federal authorities to detain people who are deemed to be risks to security and candidates for “future acts of sabotage.”
The film goes back and forth between scenes of the tribunals held in a tent for group 638 and scenes of group 637 in the desert. The dissidents include war protestors, anti-recruitment activists, draft dodgers, and university students. Opposed to the Vietnam War, they’ve been summarily rounded up, and now judged security risks, they are given the choice of hefty sentences in federal penitentiaries or the rigors of Punishment Park.
Facing a typical sentence of forty years in a federal penitentiary or four days in Punishment Park, naturally, the dissidents chose the latter. In Punishment Park, the dissidents–now prisoners–are set loose in the harsh Southern California desert with no water. Their goal is to reach the American flag hoisted some 53 miles away within 3 days and 2 nights. If they can reach the flag, in this exercise replete with both literal and symbolic overtones, they will be free to go. This is clearly a cruel ‘game’–sport (officially called a training exercise) for the police officers, army personnel, and SWAT teams who are assigned to monitor the prisoners. The participants on both sides of the Punishment Park fiasco are interviewed, and opposing opinions and attitudes are presented in this microcosm of the times.
Similar to Watkins’ film The Gladiators the backdrop of a competition is used to make statements about societal values. Punishment Park is not nearly as successful a film as The Gladiators. Some of the tribunal scenes border on the hysterical, and although they begin as ideological battlegrounds, they usually devolve into swearing sessions between the dissidents and their bourgeois judges. However, some of the moments in these ad hoc courtrooms are priceless. Various members of the establishment conduct the hearings and at one point, they question a black prisoner. Tribunal members argue that “black people in the U.S, have more cars and T.Vs” than the entire population of Russia. This, tribunal members believe, is a substantive argument for black compliance with the system.
Punishment Park like The Gladiators is another Peter Watkins cult hit still waiting to happen. Ostracized by the media, but also in self-imposed exile, his work remains outside of mainstream media channels. Although Punishment Park was made almost 40 years ago, it remains startlingly prescient, and it’s as though societal elements that Watkins saw in their fragmentary form have come to fruition in this new century. In Punishment Park Watkins portrays the pathology of authority, the erosion of the constitution, and the division of America by the politics of polarization.