Somewhat lost among the Easy Rider-iconic and Medium Cool-second tier classics, Peter Watkin’s Punishment Park is just as much a striking piece of counterculture polemic as those more discussed records of America during its most revolutionary period since, well, the Revolution. The recipient of much controversy on its 1971 release, Punishment Park unsurprisingly found itself without proper release in America, but its insidious and casual portrayal of its passionate political stance ensures it remains an imperative watch.
Operating in a then near-future, punishment parks are camps in which youthful and arrested dissidents are taken to be faced with a farcical, illegal trial and an unpleasant choice: spend decades in a maximum security facility, or gamble their fate on a mocking, three day race across a desert for the US flag, pursued by authorities.
The film follows some of those who have chosen the latter option for various reasons (objection to the alternative punishment system, belief they’ve done nothing wrong, simple grim hope), interspersed with scenes of others’ ‘tribunals’, where guilt is assumed and authority figures are wheeled out less as a jury, more to pass moral judgement on these barely adult ‘criminals’. One particular figure deserving of a throttling (and yes, the pointed and deliberate irony of this feeling is not lost) is a hypocritical “housewife” and moral arbiter who, after shrieking to a female protest singer about children corrupted by her songs, is told “lady your children were brainwashed by watching Donna Reed and Father Knows Best… by the time they listened to me they were past their formative years” only for it to fall on ignorant ears.
TV producers said they “could never, and would never show a film like this on American TV”
Observing and ultimately involving themselves in these nihilistic events are a British film crew recording footage for an unspecified news piece; it is their footage we are watching. Park’s director Watkins is also British, providing the film with a unique perspective on distinctly American issues in a field of New Wave dispatches on the state of the Land of the Free. While this no doubt went some way to America’s contempt for the film (Watkins has explained TV producers said they “could never, and would never show a film like this on American TV”), it also provides Park with just enough distance to clearly raise what I would argue is its principal theme – not that of Orwellian control, or even simply police brutality, but of miscommunication.
That’s not to say the former issues aren’t critiqued in the film; on the contrary, the fact domestic and foreign news crews have been permitted access to document what happens at these facilities (which would and should horrify any supporter of open speech and basic human rights) exemplifies the confidence their operators have in the support of obfuscating and smug bureaucracy and power. No matter how many critics of this system state their concerns, they are shrugged off with the same officially-sanctioned remarks. It’s vérité Kafka.
Likewise, the brutality of the unrestrained authorities given the freedom from consequence and critical thinking seemingly necessary to do their jobs efficiently is as prescient now as it was in the days of Kent State. The only human moment from any of the dozens of guards pursuing the punishment park participants is from an 18-year old after accidentally killing one of the unarmed prisoners. While the Vietnam analogy present in this teenage killing machine may be unsubtle, it really doesn’t need subtlety, particularly as a far more powerful point is made seconds later when the disturbed and confused guard is spoken for by a more experienced party-liner, who brushes over that sticky morality business like a rug over a hole-riddled floor.
It’s a film condemned by some as liberal hippy propaganda, which it certainly could be read as. Authority figures refusing to acknowledge dissent until it turns violent, and then using that fact to quash it could admittedly be presented more impartially, though why should it? It’s a film fuelled by passion and politics, neither of which should be inhibited in the cinema. But crucially Park is interested not so much in liberal versus conservative, nor communism versus capitalism, nor even in authority versus protest. Whether through condemnation, or shrieking ignorance, or silencing and dismissing the emotional upset of people working alongside them, true dialogue is prevented at every turn.
While the human-hunting dystopia is more attention-grabbing and provocative, the tribunals linger longer in the mind. It’s not how we fight. It’s how we communicate. The dystopia of discourse is a rarely explored concept in art and is arguably more terrifying than simply being herded and mistreated and killed. When people cease talking, they start being invalidated, their existence rendered inconsequential. Punishment Park is an astute warning of this danger, a cautionary tale disguised as contemporary criticism. It may have been unjustly (but fittingly) ignored and unlistened to, but that need not and should not be the case.