Saturday 30 May 2009

Punishment Park (1971)

Director: Peter Watkins

I didn't intend it this way but this faux documentary from 1971 turned out to be an interesting bookend to The Explosive Generation, made a decade earlier in 1961 and which I watched earlier in the week. The Explosive Generation spoke to how the United States was changing through a new generation of youth willing to unite in protest at what they saw as injustice. The black and white drama saw young students protesting the suspension of a teacher who dared to listen to their concerns and winning out through unity and civil disobedience. However they were up against a school principal and a local police officer. Punishment Park speaks to what happens when the opposition is the United States government.

It's truly stunning that this film was made the year I was born, because it is utterly timely, as appropriate today as it was nearly four decades ago. It isn't just that the concerns raised remain valid, it's that the entire film could have been released in 2008 or, to be honest, most years in between, regardless of the party in power or the issues of the day. The real question is whether it would be as believable tomorrow and I have no doubt that it would: it would take paradigm shifts to change that and there's no guarantee that even the country's first black president could or would initiate them.

Given that this is 1971, Nixon is president and the backdrop is the Vietnam War, something frequently referenced in dialogue and radio background. These two things are about the only things that date the material: switch the president's portrait to George W Bush and the name and location of the war and everything else would feel contemporary. We watch what the government sees as political prisoners tried in a highly restrictive environment obviously influenced by the McCarthy hearings and sentenced to long periods in a federal penitentiary. However they're each given an alternative: to be let loose into Punishment Park to take part in a bizarre one sided game of capture the flag.

These people are labelled criminals, but like those in say, Guantanamo Bay, they have not been tried in a court of law. As the narrator explains as the film opens, title 2 of the 1950 Internal Security Act grants the US president the power to identify an act of insurrection within his country, call it an internal security emergency and detain whoever he likes on the basis that they may commit future acts of sabotage, with no right of bail and no need for evidence. If the people running the 'court', who are naturally not judges, deem that these people are guilty, then they're guilty.

Inevitably what these hearings are used for is rather wide ranging and goes well beyond any original intentions. These detainees are draft dodgers, militants, pacifists, writers of seditious songs, hippies, philosophers, people who do not think as those in authority would like them to. Of course they see themselves in a different light: as oppressed citizens in a corrupt and authoritarian society being whitewashed outside the legal process; and they see the authorities as 'hired killers' and 'street cleaners of the public conscious'. Interestingly, we the viewers don't have a lot of sympathy for either side: the detainees are generally foul mouthed louts and their captors are generally self righteous thugs. There isn't much of a veneer over either, this film being brutally honest about everything it sees.

What we have is sympathy for the process and what we see is inhumane. My objections about how these people are treated would mirror precisely my objections against many things in the US today, most closely the process that put people into Guantanamo Bay and the decisions that sanctioned torture as a valid means of interrogation, but also less overt things that also involve the chipping away of human rights and rights of Americans guaranteed under the constitution and the bill of rights, both of which are inevitably quoted here. I'm not an American citizen and so didn't have these things drummed into me in school, but there's much that even I can see.

And this film has such an amazing breadth of vision that it speaks to other incidents and movements and philosophies, many of which hadn't even been conjured up at the time of filming. The behaviour of authorities in the park was presumably intended to reflect activity during student unrest in the late sixties, but rang true to me for the LA riots, Abu Ghraib and even assaults on cult compounds. The patriotic propaganda spouted by the tribunal chairman and others reminded very much of those elusive weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

I'm sure other viewers would have been reminded of different things. It isn't much of a stretch to picture the Dixie Chicks in place of the political songwriter that was on trial here, and Mrs Mary Jurgens, member of the tribunal, epitomised to me the whole moral majority concept brought to life in my era by Tipper Gore and the PMRC. I couldn't help projecting this a couple of decades further into the future and picturing the issues at hand being less to do with racial militarism or a refusal to obey the draft and more to do with the enforcement of intellectual property rights. These detainees could easily have been people like DVD Jon or Shawn Fanning or anyone who works to reverse engineer encryption, DRM or help ensure information stays free.

And to the Punishment Park of the title. This may have seemed the least valid concept of the film for many years but it fits today's apparent need to turn anything and everything into reality TV right down to a tee. To avoid their long sentences in federal penitentiaries these convicts can choose to spend a short time instead playing a 'game' in Punishment Park, tasked simply to reach an American flag and freedom, but the flag is 53 miles away across the Californian desert and they have three days and two nights to get there, on foot and without water in temperatures that range up to 110 degrees.

They're also being followed, having a mere two hour head start on the authorities, here consisting of a police riot squad, members of the National Guard and three federal marshals. And here's the real point: this isn't a game for the detainees to win, it's a training ground for the authorities in catching subversives, much like say, The Running Man or any number of low budget science fiction films of the 80s and 90s, all of which are a politicised version of the old hunting story told on film as far back as The Most Dangerous Game in 1933.

Like most of those films, this game is rigged even beyond the overwhelming odds that the participants have to deal with from moment one; and like most of those films, it's televised. In this instance it isn't live, but there are three camera crews capturing the dynamics of the trials, the authorities leading the chase and the prisoners playing the game. Ostensibly this is to demonstrate to the public at large why the hearings and Punishment Park are fair and just, so the crews are multinational (American, British and German) but of course it doesn't all play out quite that way. But what we see could easily pass for raw footage of a more gritty reality show, to be sanitised later for public consumption.

And this framework is utterly appropriate, as is the rest of this film, which while it's presented in a loose reality style, is very cleverly constructed indeed. Almost everything here speaks to polarisation: the them and us concept, not just the obvious two irreconcilable sides of the authorities and the prisoners, but the game concept mixing the frivolous with the serious and even the language. Half of this film is spoken in legalese, the detached language of the bureaucrat and the lawyer, almost as a justification for the actions taken; and the other half is abusive bad language, as the counterculture's response to that. The only thing not polarised is the blurring between fantasy and reality that comes with the faux documentary style.

The film invites analysis on many fronts, not least the political ones. It would be fascinating to hear a professor in film studies talk about how the film was made, as it obviously played with the expectations of the actors for real. There's much to be said about the propaganda involved and what precisely writer/director Peter Watkins was trying to comment on. One of the key discussions there would centre around the closing remarks as the credits run. Amazingly, in a bizarre coincidence, one of the defendants in the film was convicted of conspiracy to bomb and assaulting a police officer. This may or may not have been fictional but whichever way it merely asks more questions. This is amazing viewing and, like much of the work of Peter Watkins, too little seen.

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