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My curiosity and patience to finally see this controversial film, which
now has been released on DVD for the first time in the UK, has been
more than rewarded. Peter Watkins has excelled himself in his audacity
and technical skills. This pseudo-documentary is certainly ahead of its
time and still frighteningly relevant and up to date.
The film is inspired by the upheaval of the late sixties in the US, when the government has increased its legitimized use of violence and oppression, while the anti-war movement reacts increasingly violent and radical. In order to deal with both this, the overpopulation of prisons and to provide special training to riot police units, the government has introduced the so-called punishment parks. Convicted 'criminals', mostly activists, are given the 'choice' to either be locked up in prison for years and years, or spend three days in one of these parks, where they either gain their freedom their death or an even longer prison sentence. The situation in the parks is beyond their worst expectations, however. It reminded me of a sort of realistic version of Battle Royale (2000).
The film's structure is extremely effective and recalls parallels with Cannibal Holocaust, which is made almost 10 years later. Both movies are constructed and filmed in such a way that the viewer is challenged in thinking and feeling he is actually watching a real documentary and therefore shocked, even though aware of the fact that: this is a film. Both confront us with the inherently violent nature of mankind, but where Cannibal Holocaust is devoid of any deeper meaning (above all, it is an exploitation movie in every sense of the word) and does not raise any critical questions about the state of the world, Punishment Park does just that.
I have been profoundly impressed with Punishment Park and find it hard to believe how such a powerful and important film could have been rejected and marginalized for so long. Maybe that says enough about the truth of its content, about the way power structures in this world function. I do not agree with the critique that Watkins polarizes and stereotypes, because the movie depicts activists and the keepers of the legitimized power structures who are in reality as polarized as they are here. If they weren't, there would not be any conflict and therefore no change in our societies. In reality, confrontations between these two groups often take stereotypical forms, whether you place them between activists and establishment in Latin America, Russia or New York City. If these groups would not be polarized to these extremes, the activists would be part of the silent majorities that tacitly complain but at the same time reside in the injustices of the world.
As Peter Watkins tells us in the introduction on the DVD, the actors in Punishment Park are for the most part amateurs. Most kids were real activists from LA, most policemen had been part of the national forces and even some of the members of the tribunals are part of the social and political establishment of the time. Not introducing both groups previous to the shooting of the scenes taking place in the improvised court room, adds to spontaneous and improvised feel. Parallels are drawn with issues of the time, such as the repression of Black Panther members (one of the black prisoners is said to resemble the convicted charismatic BPleader Bobby Seale) and the trial of the Chicago seven.
I admire Watkins' obvious and sincere engagement with injustice and his concern with human rights and the increasingly repressive measures taken by governments (nowadays in the name of the War in Terror) to silence those that do not agree and refuse to be brainwashed. Punishment Park remains to be an extremely important movie that should be shown in schools and seen by everybody who shares these concerns. Maybe its marginalization can finally be made up for.
You can't watch a film like Peter Watkins' "Privilege," a story of the
exploitation of a pop music performer by big business, the state, and
even organized religion, without thinking of creatively degenerate
commodities like Michael Jackson or Britney Spears, who hawk corporate
giants like Pepsi or some other poison for money. Or any number of
entertainers, in music or movies, who become tools of political parties
or commercial religious interests like Scientology and Kabbalah. A film
like Privilege must have seemed almost like science fiction when
released in 1967, so fantastic was its premise. Today we tend to take
celebrity endorsements for granted, giving little thought to its more
alarming implications. Watkins' vision has not only become reality, we
tacitly accept this reality as "normal."
Now consider Punishment Park. As Privilege challenges the viewer to examine what is being sold to us, and why, Punishment Park demands that we reckon with what is being taken from us, and why.
Heaven help America, and for that matter the world, if contemporary politicians get their hands on this film. It is already so close to reality, that in viewing it recently, I experienced a genuine, nauseating feeling of anxiety.
Watkins again skillfully employs a documentary-style narrative. Whereas in Privilege some rough edges to this technique were apparent, in Punishment Park it has been honed to sharp, seamless perfection. The sense of realism is enhanced by disarmingly unpretentious, economical, believable portrayals by the entire cast. This is the kind of acting Hollywood has completely turned its back on, to its detriment, in favor of cosmetically perfect image projections. The cast has first-rate material to work with in Watkins' screenplay.
Many cinematic visionaries have tried to shake the viewer out of their complacent, false sense of security. No one has ever achieved this result with such stark and chilling accuracy as Peter Watkins does here.
"What seems quite clear now, is that instead of trying to bring the estranged and excluded Americans, such as these people, back into the national community, the Administration has chosen to accept and exploit the present division within the country, and to side with what it considers is the majority. Instead of the politics of reconciliation, it has chosen the politics of polarization."
To paraphrase one of the characters, we don't have to call them pigs because they know what they are. Better than we do.
To think this film was made the year I was born. To think people are still having their constitutional rights taken away, now in the name of "homeland security". To think this movie was intentionally banned from the American public. PUNISHMENT PARK addresses the political divide in the United States better than any movie I've ever seen. Had it been more widely seen, would it have changed anything? A movie like this is so polarizing, it has the potential to cause riots. It shakes you up and forces you to take sides. It makes you face the issue: are you for the people's right of dissent in a time of war, or for the constitution being compromised in the name of "national security"? The protagonists are forced by the government to race to the American flag in a game that undermines the very ideals the flag stands for. The acting is totally convincing. So much so, I can't see any acting going on here at all. If this is a scripted documentary, it's more convincing than any reality show on television today. PUNISHMENT PARK is possibly the most important film ever made. It really makes you think.
As someone who was dealing with the draft board the year this was made, I
was absolutely astounded by the truth of it's vision. The haircuts,
figures of speech, that was what it looked and felt like at the time.
Contrary to popular memory, everyone wasn't a hippy with a few "bad" people
who were for the war. It WAS scary! I may be wrong, but I do believe that
most of the dialogue of the trial section, anyway, was written from various
quotes such as from the trial of the Chicago 7. If you want to see
amazing, imagine that on national TV!!! It was on national
I had to see this movie with French subtitles, as I understand it was
unavailable for 30 years. I can see why. As a mock documentary, it thinly
disguises a diatribe against American society during the Vietnam era - the
country's hypocrisy and its culture of violence. It is a forthright piece
agit-prop mock verite filmmaking that I can imagine would easily provoke
strong reactions among the youth and among the left during that divisive
That, of course, is its strength and its purpose.
The narrative itself cuts between two scenarios. Neither is meant to be
'realistic'; each is exaggerated for impact and to push the metaphoric
of the situation. On one hand, you have a group of radicals neatly
representing various factions of the left - a feminist, a pacifist, a
revolutionary, a black activist, a political activist, a musician for free
expression. They are brought one by one before a kind of kangaroo court
up of various bigoted, closed minded fascistic pro-war, `America Love it
Leave it' types. These 'pigs' are there to determine the guilt of these
wing 'subversives' and then give them a choice - fifteen years in a
prison or - Punishment Park.
The second scenario involves a group of radicals who have been sentenced
Punishment Park and are about to find out what that means. This story
provides a second metaphor concerning American injustice and its cults of
violence, division, and oppression. This group must get across the desert
90 to 100 degree heat to a final destination, where the American flag has
been placed. They have two hours to get a head start before a group of
p***ed off and bloodthirsty troopers and National guardsman will attempt
hunt them down. They must then surrender or be shot. The chances -
- are slim.
By going back and forth between these two scenes - the absurd tirades of
right wing bigots against the left to the hopeless cause of radicals
for freedom in Punishment Park - the point is made quite clear. The effect
of the relentless documentary style and of the film's punishing politics
keeps your interest and still manages to incite and indict.
Many of Watkins' images recall images of the 60's - assassinated radicals,
dead blacks, assaults by National Guardsmen, gags in court, and strong
of the McCarthy hearings. The cumulative effect is strong stuff. Where it
could have gotten silly and where it could feel dated - it still
It is a fabulous premise for a political satire. It would work well now
the neo digital Verite style of the Blair Witch Project in practice and
purloined presidency of George W. and his oppressive cronies in charge.
It's said that this film is or was banned in the US since it was
released. Since there is no information on IMDb I must rely on my other
sources and believe it. If this is really true, the movie is even more
hurtful and frightening and is it is anyway.
The movie is a so-called mockumentary, although I think the topic is too serious call it like that. It creates a scenario where America is like a military state and all revolutionary objects are arrested immediately without proof. After an obligatory tribunal they have to decide if they go to prison for some years or choose the punishment park. In that, they have to walk through the desert for three days to reach an American flag, posted 50 miles ahead, while they're are followed by police and army troops.
The movie itself pretends to be a documentary about these incidents and follows both the tribunals and the hunting through the desert, filmed by European film crews. All the facts are explained, the interviewers ask questions and film everything. People stare directly into the camera, shouting at it. It seems very, very real. Talking about realism here is nonsense. This movie is not about how to make a realistic film, it is about how such a film would look like, if it was real. And it certainly would look like this. If it would be filmed anyway. In an 'utopian' state like this, there surely wouldn't be a European film crew allowed to film those things.
There are many things that frighten us. The defendants are people from all social classes. Political leaders, musicians, authors, philosophers, unemployed, etc. They seem to be hopeless, rebellious or scared. They are no heroes. They talk a lot in the tribunal, knowing it doesn't lead to anything, saying nevertheless all they said in speeches and books and songs before. One says he's not afraid to die. Is this true? Well, he doesn't have to run through the desert hunted by cops. The defendants have no chance, or at least, their only chance, the decision between prison and punishment park, is no chance really. The way they decide in the end and the way film ends, makes it clear that this kind of heroism is suicide.
These tribunals remind us a lot of tribunals in the Third Reich. The officials use the same kind of idealistic speeching, ignoring all the arguments from the defendants, starting to scream at them and then telling them they should be quiet. They warn the defendants of "watching their language" and insult them much more. They ask them questions, the defendants can not answer, but it's never intended they should. These scenes are a statement about what we call justice.
The scenes in the desert are on a different level. When we see the prisoners for the first time, we realize that they realize, they haven't got a chance. Seeing the desert and the mountains, feeling the sun and the thirst, they don't have a clue how they should stand those three days. The film crew follows them and talks to them while they try to escape this madness. They argue, should they play the game, or escape, or revolt? It all leads to the same and no one is surprised. Some will question if such parks would exist in reality in such a state? Why not? It empties the prisons and allows the government to punish the revolutionaries as they want to. It is not a gas chamber, but the Nazis killed jews before concentration camps were built. The comparison is fair, since there is no real difference.
The movie is scary and depressing. The problems that are talked about sound to familiar to ignore. This is not science-fiction. Talking about poverty, unemployment and crime is not utopic. The film shows us that government and democracy as it is presented to us, is not only useless, but dangerous. It also shows us that revolution is not definitely the solution. The defendants seem to be confused because they don't really know how to fight this. They do things, but for nothing. Even if this delivers no solution to us, it still is a statement.
To me, the most frightening thing is the fact of the banning of this movie. Here we have a film that accuses the loss of freedom, moral and peace. It accuses the government, a fictional government nevertheless, to be dangerous and inhuman. And then this very film is practically banned.
Punishment Park is a brilliant piece of cinema. Shot in the Southern
California desert using his patent faux documentary style, Watkins
creates a film like no other. He follows two groups of prisoners (one
pre-sentenced the other post-sentenced) throughout the picture. After
they're tried by a military tribunal, they have the choice of either
serving out a prison sentence or they can participate in Punishment
Park (a grueling three day hike through the desert with nothing but the
clothes on their backs) whilst being hunted down by local law
enforcement officers who use the park as a live action training
ground). I can't say enough about this movie. Sometimes it feels as if
you're watching a real documentary. This is one of Peter Watkins most
accessible films. I advise you to look out for it. You wont regret it!
I will certainly be shot for comparing this with A Clockwork Orange, but so
be it. Both from '71, both banned from television (12-June-2001, 15 votes:
isn't it wonderful?), both science fiction and both concerned with an
authoritative system that is growing out of (moral) proportions, both scary
as hell. A major difference is that Punishment Park is intentionally not
aesthetically fine-tuned and that the corrective groups have probably never
committed any crime at all, while Alex is a recidivist delinquent. They do,
as in Clockwork, spout supposed philosophical statements throughout the
film. It is an ultra left-wing propagandistic attack on a certain
ultra-reactionary system filled with caricatures (absurd loyalty, juvenile
soldiers and rednecks) and the Viet Nam war. The dialogues and monologues
are eloquent, but I found them sorely myopic and exaggerated.
quote: 'Punishment Park. Described by the US senate subcommittee on law and order as: a necessary training for the law officers and National Garde of the country in the control of those elements who seek the violent overthrow of US government and the means of providing a punitive deterrent aforementioned subversive elements.'
The supposed delinquents can choose between their (severe) penal sentence or three days in Punishment Park, where officers in training may hunt them. We see the interrogations of a new group alternated with footage of a preceding group that is outside in the park fighting for their dehydrated life and to get to the American flag for chauvinistic 'salvation'. This dystopic penal system is the result of the politics of polarization, according to a condemned one. The hand-held cinematography and the minimalist industrial sound track with constant shooting and agony in the background create a sense of realism, AND it's frightening to see how far fantasy can go in a dated film: it's almost post-apocalyptic. What's even scarier, there are parts of the world that apply even more disreputable methods ... today
9/10 (not for the political ideas of course)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a Peter Watkins film. If one has seen his BBC masterpieces "Cullodden" and "The War Game", one will recognize the style (and his voice) within seconds after the start. Made in 1971 it is set in a very near future, when the Vietnam war has escalated even more and now seems to involve China. Nixon is still president and civil disobedience and protest is dealt with violently using drumhead tribunals (outwardly civilian with 'everyday citizens' as judges). Because "prison building can't keep up", an alternative is introduced: The Punishment Park. Delinquents can choose between severe prison sentences and a man hunt in a hostile environment, in this case a 85 km trip through the Californian desert at 100°F. If they reach an American flag at the end without being caught by National Guard or Riot Police, they will be set free, or else they have to serve their sentence (or be dead, as we will see). The film is made in a completely documentary style with three European teams covering a tribunal and the course of two groups already sentenced. Scenes jump between the tribunal tent, the hunting troops and the hunted condemned. Watkin's scarce off commentary gives us raw background information (time, temperature etc.). The tribunal scenes show a kangaroo court on the one side and a wide range of personalities on the other ranging from real terrorists over 'undesirables' to clearly innocents (e.g. a total pacifist who can't even hurt flies). The defense lawyer (who does take his job seriously) has to take abuse from both sides. What makes these scenes especially eerie is their resemblance to the rhetoric of todays administration to the detail. Meanwhile, some unfortunate events in the desert make clear that the 'rules of the game' don't really apply. The question remains open, whether it is rigged from the start or arbitrariness by the troops due to those events that leads to the outcome (I suspect, it is both). At the end we are back at square one with the next group going to "Punishment Park". This description may indicate a heavily biased (or even demagogic) propaganda movie but that would be misleading. The behavior (all participants were nonprofessionals as usual with Watkins) looks and sounds real (the tribunal scenes may even contain text material from real contemporary trials). I'd say that this could be sold as the 'real thing' without problem. With Watkins's "The Forgotten Faces" the reaction was "We can't send that or nobody will believe our real newsreels anymore (because this is indistinguishable from the real thing)". With "Punishment Park" it ought to be the same. Effectively banned in the US as far as I know this is a must see that hasn't lost its power or its relevance (especially today).
Realistic Master-Piece. thirty years later, the pictures can look a bit old, but actually, it only accurate the 'fist in the face' effect of the movie. I never saw in my whole life a film like this one. First time I saw it, I didn't know if it was a fiction... And It didn't looked like... That movie is a masterpiece that every single person in the world have to see. It's the best ever society critical movie. The ultimate movie that demonstrate that the system is down. And the system has not change a lot, in thirty years. I think this movie would have to be watched as an education piece.
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