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Brent Sullivan
Brent Sullivan

Punishment Park(1971) REPACK

One of the few non-comedic mockumentaries on this list, "Punishment Park" takes place in an alternate version of the 1970s, where prisons are full. President Nixon declares a state of emergency and a new method of carceral punishment arises. The arrested, all anti-Vietnam War activists, can either go to prison or spend three days in Punishment Park. There, they must run across the California desert and try to escape from the federal officers hunting them. It's a survival horror film told through the lens of a mockumentary. Made in 1971, director Peter Watkins criticized the American occupation of the Vietnam War while we were actively occupying the country. It's an incredible subversive film that even today speaks to a terrifying, and not-so-different, alternate reality where speaking out against the government reduces you to nothing more than an animal to be targeted by the authorities. The ending is especially nihilistic in its attitude about escaping the System with a capital S. It's by no means as cheerful as most of this list, but it's an important document of how mockumentaries can just as effectively, and more creatively, reveal horrific truths about the human condition.

Punishment Park(1971)

Punishment Park was described as being "banned in the United States," but it is probably closer to the truth to say that it has simply never been shown here commercially. It premiered at Cannes to highly polarized opinions; the New York Times wrote (in a review that feels like Peter Sotos come 30 years early), "[it is] a movie of such blunt-wrong headed sincerity that you're likely to sit through the first 10 hysterical minutes of it before realizing that it is essentially the wish-fulfilling dream of a masochist. Because all literature, including futuristic nonsense like this, represents someone's wish-fufilling dream, I can't help but suspect that Wakins' cautionary fable is a wildly sincere desire to find his own ultimate punishment." The near-incoherence of this aside, I have to wonder why they were so eager to read in some hidden motive on Wakins' part for making it. Rolling Stone voted it one of the ten best films of 1971, while Playboy groused, "Seldom has the cause of peace and freedom been served so mindlessly" -- which assumed, incorrectly, that the movie was a knee-jerk vindication of the left. Seeing Punishment Park released to video makes me wonder how many of Watkins' other, little-seen movies will come to the surface. Aside from The War Game, he has also made Privilege, an openly fictional movie about a future world church / government using pop music to control the masses -- another idea that today, like Punishment Park, seems to have undimmed relevance.

Much of America's left wing, be they Civil Rights activists, feminists, conscientious objectors, or communists, are rounded up and arrested en mass, with their resistance towards the war being the official excuse. With prisons and courtrooms being filled with loads of people ending up on the wrong side of this governmental overreach, special "emergency tribunals" are set up, and are essentially given free range to dole out more unusual forms of punishment to lighten the load of the prison system.

  • The story is told from the point of view of a British and West German documentary crew, as they follow two groups of poor souls subjected to this fight for lives.Tropes: The Bad Guys Are Cops: They sure are, and they take open and sadistic glee in being the enforcement arm of Nixon's oppressive government.

  • Brains Evil, Brawn Good: Invoked. The right-wing corrupt government openly say that the left-wing intelligentsia won't defend their countries.

  • The Cake Is a Lie: It is impossible for the prisoners to "win" Punishment Park. Everything is controlled from start to finish by the corrupt government, and they won't allow anyone to win. No matter how well the participants do, they are surrounded by police and hauled off just as they are about to reach the flag. The participants are also told there will be water at the halfway point; this, too, is a lie.

  • Defiant to the End: Some of the participants realize the truth that the game is futile and the government simply won't allow anyone to win, and decide to violently resist the law enforcement chasing them if nothing else as a last "fuck you". They all end up getting killed.

  • Greater-Scope Villain: Richard Nixon is never directly seen, but his oppressive power grab is directly responsible for all the suffering the film portrays.

  • Good Lawyers, Good Clients: The accused group's public defender is a sympathetic and tries his best, but he is faced with the hopeless task of having to argue their against a group of Hanging Judges who already see the accused as guilty and the Constitution as suspended for the time being.

  • Kangaroo Court: Essentially what the "emergency tribunals" are. They are exclusively made up of authoritarian right-wing politicians and military officers, and other associated corrupt hicks, who are all openly unsympathetic to the accused and determined to find them guilty no matter what.

  • Meta Casting: A large chunk of the cast are not portrayed by trained actors. Many of the arrested left-wing protesters are portrayed by actual anti-war protesters and many of the soldiers are portrayed by actual conservatives, and there was little to no rehearsal involved. Peter Watkins relayed that he at most gave the cast a general idea about what any given scene was about, and asked them to ad-lib their lines based on their personal ideology.

  • Morton's Fork: Punishment Park is merely an exercise in breaking people's spirit. The chance of any being acquitted is nil, and anyone still standing at the end is dragged off to jail, with those who protest loudest getting the longest sentences.

  • Oppressive States of America: Part of the premise is Nixon turning the US into this, complete with Kangaroo Courts and cruel forms of punishment, against anyone who is against the expanding East Asian war. It is done under a pretense of securing law and order in American, but it is blatantly clear that the real goal is the iron-fisted elimination of any and all kinds of progressive and reformist political movements.

  • Smart People Speak the Queen's English: Darkly parodied. The story is primarily populated by Americans, who range from left-wing intellectuals to hicks. However, the film (presumably a documentary) itself is narrated in its entirety by an upper-class English male voice, in an ironic juxtaposition to the brutalities taking places on-screen.



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