20 April 2019

Review: Punishment Park (1971)


'Under the provision of Title 2 of the 1950 Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, the President of the United States of America is still authorized, without further approval by Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an "internal security emergency". The President is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage. Persons apprehended shall be given a hearing, without right of bail, without the necessity of evidence and shall then be confined to places of detention.' (Opening Narration to Punishment Park)

Originally released in May 1971 Peter Watkins' Punishment Park is one of the most provocative pseudo documentaries ever committed to celluloid, and one that remains as relevant nearly forty years later.

Set in a US detention camp the film follows separate narrative strands as two groups of American students are tried and convicted of subversive activities against the state - primarily organising protests and dodging the draft. They are all sentenced to lengthy penal terms but given the choice of taking part in the Punishment Park which gives them the chance to avoid their prison sentences. The Punishment Park is revealed to be a three day race across the blazing Californian desert to reach an American flag before being apprehended by a pursuing force of police and National Guards.

The narratives are woven together as a BBC documentary following one group through the sentencing tribunal, and the other through the Punishment Park itself. Needless to say the latter are brutalised and slaughtered in a cat and mouse game that is rigged from the start, and the former are last seen accepting to enter the game in the vain hope of avoiding their sentence.

Brilliantly shot by a crew of eight (using just one camera) and nearly entirely improvised by the cast, the documentary style is utterly convincing.

Since it's original controversial release the film was rarely seen until it recently resurfaced on DVD. To say that it remains a deeply unsettling and provocative piece of subversive Seventies cinema would be something of an understatement. The film depicts the US as a paranoid, out-of-control superpower where voices of dissent are swiftly silenced through the invocation of the 'Internal Security Act.'

In the original 1971 Press Kit it says, "Punishment Park takes place tomorrow, yesterday or five years from now." One only needs to consider recent political history to realise that this is a staggeringly prescient work of art clearly highlighting the similarities between the political landscape of the early Seventies and the present.
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