Punishment Park [1971] – A Powerful & Prescient Political Film


In 1968, US Democratic Party’s ‘Democratic National Convention’ was planned to held in Illinois, Chicago, between August 26 and 29. Political turbulence, civil unrest and violence reached a boiling point during that year. On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and, it was followed by the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, on June 5th. Prior to the Democratic convention, counter culture groups announced their plans to arrive at Chicago and disrupt the convention, while the city authorities promised to deal the protestors with an iron hand. The confrontation between young protestors and Chicago police went for nearly eight days. Many were injured in the ensued riots and the events were broadcasted live on television (subsequently the trial of ‘Chicago Seven’ happened – accused of conspiring to incite the riots). On 4th May, 1970 National Guards fired at unarmed student protestors of Kent State University and killed 4 students. It was seen as a vital historic moment of public unrest during US’ involvement in Vietnam War. Later two black students were shot in Jackson state and more than 4 million students participated in the resulted strikes & protests. The upheavals kindled the radical movements within US, which beleaguered the ‘powers that be’.

British film-maker Peter Watkins’ powerful and controversial mockumentary “Punishment Park” (1971) was made after observing the aforementioned (plus few others) watershed moments in US history. Watkins imagines a speculative near-future period, where ideological polarization makes government to declare to protests as an act of treason or terrorism. A kangaroo court, made up of hardwired, conservative and so-called concerned citizens, judge the draft evaders, pacifists and anti-war activists. The accused youngsters are taken to an intermittent camp, a National Park in California. There the tribunals, who show no interest in the US constitution or law, handout lengthy prison sentence for getting involved in subversive acts. However, the sentenced radicals were given a choice: to calmly take their prison sentence or else to take a gamble in ‘Punishment Park’.

Punishment Park_Tribunal

In the blistering heat of Californian desert, the convicted group is challenged to walk 53 miles (in three days), without food or water to get to an American flag, at the end of the National Park. The group is given a two hour head start and will be later pursued by armed and furious National Guardsmen with all intent to stop them dead on their tracks. Those caught in police pursuit will be sent to carry on the full prison sentence, and those who reach the flag will be immediately freed. A camera crew follows the enraging & farcical court process as well as sticks with the convicted (filming their experiences), walking in 100 degrees heat. The narrative, concocted as a documentary, follows group 637’ hard journey through the desert and group 638’ trenchant arguments in the civil court.

Although Peter Watkins channels his anger against the powerful authorities and their uniformed henchmen, he attains a balanced approach in showcasing the foibles of the polarized people on either side. Despite the speculative invention of the plot, Watkins diffuses a lot of real events in the background (heard in the radio) like Vietnam conflict, Russia’s alleged encroachment into Caribbean and Chinese border issue. The gagging of black prisoner Charles Robbins during the trial is infused to resemble the same kind of treatment faced by Bobby Seale during the 1969 Chicago Conspiracy trial. Watkins has also chosen a cast of non-professional actors, who were actually involved in real protests and activism. Such close-to-reality effects plus largely improvised dialogues subtly provokes the viewers to understand the truth within the imaginary premise. Of course, “Punishment Park’s” ability to connect with modern viewers, who have little or no knowledge about US’ Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam War Conflict or Yuppie Culture, is highly questionable.

Punishment Park [1971]

Even if the episodes of convicts stumbling through desert to reach the flag may not engage the modern viewers, the incendiary arguments in the tribunal court still have the power to resonate with anyone questioning the tyrannical status quo. Some of the hysteric viewpoints exhibited by Watkins do proved to be right, post September 11. Parallels could be drawn between the apathetic treatment of convicts by National Guard forces and the leaked footage from Guantanamo Bay or Abu Gharib. Shot in guerilla style, with a very low budget, Watkins didn’t have a script and so, many of the dialogues were developed through on-the-spot rehearsals. But, still there are many influential and thought-provoking lines enunciated during the hearing. In a sequence towards, the end, an agitated lawyer of namesake defense counsel states “We should realize the degree in which the violence of students is being overplayed and that of establishment is being minimized”. You can take these words and place it under context to any of the government sanctioned violence perpetrated against unarmed protestors, happening all around the world.

Punishment Park 2

Recently, a character in Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight” argued “Dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice, delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice”. The dialogue sort of reminds us of the National Guards’ activities in the film (or what happened in Kent State or take any police shooting against unarmed civilians), who were all motivated by revenge and wants to reinforce injustice rather than simply prevent it. The enforced violence of the authorities also showcases how the higher powers will play to rules only when it is to their advantage. Nevertheless, Watkins isn’t always coming down hard on the conservative authorities; he also pokes at the ludicrous viewpoints and decisions of the convicts/activists. As one of the convict in the desert states “They believe in protest and ritual defiance and yet they’re willing to participate fully in the rules established by the police for these games, expecting that they will come out all right if they make it out to the flag”. The irony in those words is that even the man saying it has chosen to play the game in ‘Punishment Park’.

The whole of the 638 group too chooses Punishment Park over federal imprisonment at the end of their trial. It subtly denotes how we, the civilians, are always willing to believe in the semblance of government rules, even when uttering the words of protest. From a logical perspective, the chief flaw in the film is said to be the presence of camera crew, which views the plight of activists traversing through desert without water, although it does nothing to help them. It’s seen as an unrealistic set-up, but from a figurative sense, the presence of camera crew might represent the inability of media, caught between radicalism and governmental belligerence. Or else, it could be taken that media itself becomes a passive observer, remaining skeptical about both sides. The aggressive guard at the end points this fact to the camera crew “You’re making out like a big humanitarian. The only thing you want is to sell this to your goddamn network. All you want is the money for this program.” But, there is a ray of hope in the narrative. If we watch carefully, the media or camera crew does become enraged in the end after witnessing the guards’ actions, as opposed to being passive observer, at the start.

Punishment Park_Peter Watkins

The events ensuing and the words spoken in “Punishment Park” (88 minutes) is related to a very specific moment in history, but it has the astounding power to resonate with restless masses all over the world, facing apathy and oppression in the hands of ‘Establishment’.


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