‘Punishment Park’ or — What if Adam Curtis made ‘The Hunger Games’.
“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.”
And so the narrator (Watkins himself) opens Peter Watkins’ excellent 1971 film as we see a group of incarcerated young people driven to the titular ‘Punishment Park’ by heavily armed police. They have committed no crime apart from that of the probability to “engage in future acts of sabotage” and in this near future can so be detained without any form of evidence. The park is located in the middle of a scorching desert and seems to contain nothing but a military tent housing a tribunal whilst outside there are dozens of armed police and National Guard. Here the young people (basically the Yippies and anti-Vietnam war protesters) will be given a choice — serve out their lengthy sentences in jail or survive four days in Punishment Park where, if they succeed, they will be pardoned. Throughout all this they are being followed by several documentary film crews recording the unfolding events and narrated by Watkins himself sounding very much like a polite, detached BBC announcer (by the end he most certainly isn’t detached anymore).
What happens at Punishment Park is this — the young people are placed in the middle of the desert without water or food and told that if they can reach an American flag located fifty miles away within the next four days that they will be free. However, Punishment Park was set up not just as a possible solution to overcrowded prisons but also to give the police and National Guard field training in potentially violent situations so two hours after the prisoners make for the flag the police and guard will track them down. If they are “arrested” they will serve their full term in jail. And so the hunt begins as one group is chased across the desert and another is held in the military tent and aggressively “questioned”.
‘Punishment Park’, like most of Watkins’ work, is shot documentary style and the results are pretty devastating. The set-up, the central metaphor, of the park is so close to life, so representative of reality that as soon as the movie kicks off we are dealing with events that actually happened (police violence, the murderous suppression of marginalised groups, the state killing of students) so despite the film being a fiction (isn’t all film anyway?) which gives the film a blistering quality. The entire movie is 90 minutes of rage and violence and as communication fails, crumbles and is finally abandoned totally, as the rage on both sides intensifies to its ultimate conclusion. This is no more of a “fantasy” than Kent State or My Lai was.
Combine that with some spectacular editing and some seriously impressive sound design and ‘Punishment Park’ practically vibrates with anger. Indeed, the editing and sound design really reminded me of Adam Curtis at points and the sound palate is certainly one I’ve used in my radio and audio work to emphasis certain ideas etc. Throughout the film there is nearly always the constant off-screen sound of distant gunfire, radio-chatter involving violent incidents, helicopters and fighter jets soaring across the sky. This not only bursts the film open in terms of its perceived scale but highlights the impression that the entire country is tearing itself apart and that these groups of young people are by far from the only ones being brutalised by their own Government right now.
‘Punishment Park’ is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It deals with a vitality important subject matter in a style that I find absolutely fascinating and it is extraordinarily effective, complex and thought provoking. And it is even more frightening when you realise that pretty much all the above has come true. Just ask anyone in Guantanamo Bay.
P.S. There isn’t a musical score as such, just a very few impressionistic, textural percussion washes. Turns out the soundtrack was by jazz drummer Paul Motian. Now THAT was a cool surprise!