Pseudo documentaries, and their bastard cousin the “found footage” genre, usually come in two varieties. There are comedies like the work of Christopher Guest and (to a lesser degree) Sacha Baron Cohen, and there are horror films like the Paranormal Activity cash-cow and vastly superior [rec] films. They also range in quality from the highs of Man Bites Dog and This Is Spinal Tap to the lows of The Devil Inside and Apollo 18.
What you don’t find a lot of though are angry, cautionary tales about peace-loving hippies being hunted by officers of the law.
“It has been stated as fact that there are more color television sets and automobiles owned by black people in the United States than in all of Russia together.”
A group of young men and women are loaded into a truck and driven out into the Southern California desert. At the same time, another group is led into a tent and made to stand before a tribunal of older men (and a woman) who are most definitely not their peers. What follows is a fictionalized documentary that moves back and forth between the two locations offering a glimpse of an alternate and exaggerated America where political dissenters are treated like hardcore criminals.
Group 637 are unloaded on a flat, hot expanse of desert and given a simple set of instructions. They have a finite amount of time to make their way to an American flag on the other side of Bear Mountain Punishment Park. If they succeed they’ll be set free, but if the officers recapture them they’ll be returned to serve out their prison sentence. What should be a simple test of endurance becomes a nightmare run for their lives when an officer is killed and the remaining police and National Guardsmen begin a hunt fueled by a thirst for revenge.
Group 638 meanwhile are just beginning a trial to determine their collective and individual guilt. One by one they’re seated before the tribunal, questioned, restrained and judged. They defend themselves and argue their stance based on the rights guaranteed by the Constitution as well as ones of basic humanity and decency, but they’re met with derision. If they’re against the war doesn’t that mean they’re against America? How can they justify refusing to defend their country and trying to dodge the draft instead? Why are they encouraging race wars against the whites? How can they justify wealth redistribution and environmental/labor restrictions on the factory floor? The end result appears to be a foregone conclusion, but both sides offer spirited and heartfelt debates. Unfortunately, only one side has the power.
Writer/director Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park is a ‘what if?’ scenario that takes the reality of a turbulent late sixties America and tweaks it ever so slightly. But even with that minor exaggeration the film manages a substantial degree of believability in its treatment of supposed enemies of the state. The arguments at the trial are legitimate and heartfelt on both sides, and while the film clearly leans left it never places empty words or values in the mouths of the accusers. Their concerns for their country, families, and jobs are honest, but their reactions are excessive and clearly over the line.
But is there a line during wartime? The tribunal here, empowered by the US government, doesn’t seem to think so. Real world activities have already revealed the line between freedom and security being teased by Homeland Security and friends, and when you combine that with the recent trend of beating, pepper-spraying and otherwise over-reacting to protesters by law enforcement you can almost see the slippery slope just around the next corner.
While the film is clearly a work of fiction, Watkins incorporates historical inspirations in some very direct ways. The trial of the Chicago Seven had occurred just two years prior, and in addition to arguments for the right to protest and disagree with one’s government we also see one of them treated similarly to Bobby Seale’s experience in Chicago. The sole black man of what was then the Chicago Eight, he was bound and gagged during the proceedings thereby preventing him from speaking, and that abuse of power is recreated here. It’s touches like that (along with the guy who looks like Abbie Hoffman) that serve to remind viewers that the movie has one foot in very real world.
The faux-documentary style works well in Punishment Park as most of the events are shown with an impartial eye, but when events heat up the unseen interviewer begins to challenge the police brutality and a real sense of menace takes hold. There’s the old quote that evil only needs people to do nothing in order for it to succeed, and it holds especially true when the evil in question is enacted in the name of good. “It’ll happen again as log as we got this element to deal with,” says one of the officers towards the end of the film. He’s right, but it can only happen (again) if that element allows it to. And that element is us.
The new Masters of Cinema Blu-ray looks good, but it’s obvious the full-frame presentation is of a forty year old film originally shot on 16mm. As such it’s far from an HD reference disc while still having a clear image and vibrant colors. The disc is region-locked meaning you’ll need a region B/all-region player in order to enjoy it.
The disc also includes a handful of special features:
- Newly restored high-definition transfer (shot on 16mm, Punishment Park has been remastered from a new 35mm print struck from the restored 35mm blow-up negative held in Paris)
- 30-minute video introduction by Peter Watkins
- Full-length audio commentary by Dr. Joseph A. Gomez (author of the 1979 book Peter Watkins)
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
I was sent a disc-only review copy of Punishment Park, so I can’ t speak to the physical extras included in the release other than to list them. They include:
- 40-page booklet with two essays and reprints
Punishment Park was a shocking and controversial film upon its release in 1971, and it apparently received an extremely limited release because of it. Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at world news covering the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay and our own Occupy Wall Street movements show the film to be as timely a cautionary tale today as it was four decades ago. Elements that may have seemed far fetched at one time now look believably and sadly commonplace.
Buy Punishment Park on region B Blu-ray (and region 2 DVD) from AmazonUK