The Best Intentions
In a tent set up in the baking sun, in a place beyond reach of the Constitution, a tribunal judges the supposed enemies of America, then hands them to the National Guard for cruel and unusual treatment. From this bare description, suitable for the TV Guide listing that the film will never have, you might suppose Punishment Park to be a picture about the present "war on terror." When I add that the lighting is harsh and the camera handheld, you might further imagine that the footage is documentary, snatched from today's awful reality.
You would be wrong on both counts. Newly released on DVD by New Yorker Films, Punishment Park is in fact a document of sorts, but from 1971. Its appearance of being raw reportage is an illusion, meticulously created by writer-director Peter Watkins.
In the depths of the Nixon era, Watkins set out to make a fiction film set in an America just slightly worse than reality. Defendants in political trials would be bound, gagged and dragged out of court, as was Bobby Seale in Chicago; young antiwar activists, or student bystanders, would be shot to death, as they were at Kent State and Jackson State; and the McCarran Act would be in force, giving the federal government the potential to suppress dissent with extraordinary power. The only exaggeration, in Watkins's fake documentary, was that the government would openly use this power. Those accused of sedition--a mixed crew of black nationalists and Black Panthers, draft resisters, New Left organizers, feminist songwriters, hippie poets and Chicano activists--would be removed from the court system, examined before a tribunal and then offered a choice of sentence: a long term in a federal penitentiary or three days' service in a training exercise for police and military forces. Of course, everyone would choose the latter sentence, not knowing that the delicately named Punishment Park was in fact an immense desert where convicts were hunted down in a game without rules.
You will not be surprised to learn that Punishment Park quickly vanished upon its initial release. Now that New Yorker Films has brought it back from oblivion, you might find it compelling for three reasons. The first is its absolute accuracy about the political divisions of the time--an effect Watkins achieved through the careful casting of nonprofessionals in all the roles, as dissidents, tribunal members and cops. The performers' improvised speeches (or should I say shouting matches?) reflected their actual beliefs. The second thing that's compelling about the film is Watkins's astounding mimicry of television news coverage and BBC special reports. Few people had used this strategy before him; none since have done it better.
The third reason for watching Punishment Park today? It's called Guantánamo, or Abu Ghraib, or names yet unknown to us. It took thirty-four years, but the near future of Watkins's movie has now become our present.