Punishment Park (1971)

Dir. Peter Watkins
88 minutes
7/10

*
You may not have heard about this film. I know I didn’t until I saw it at the video store and then…well, I can’t remember how or where I read about it afterwards. Well, I’m here to tell you that this is a film worth watching, especially those interested in the politics in the late 60s and early 70s. I would think this would make critics’ lists of essential viewing for films around that time period. Supposedly, this film was not released for a long time.

**
I say this would make an essential viewing of 70’s films not because of the quality of the filmmaking, but because of several aspects of the film that I found unique. More on that later. First, let me tell you what the film is about. The film is about a hypothetical scenario where the US government has set up tribunals to adjudicate the actions of political protestors. If found guilty, the tribunals offer going to jail for a long period or time or staying at “punishment park” for a short one. At punishment park–a Californian desert–convicts are told they must reach a flag some twenty miles (I think) away. They must do so on foot while being pursued by law enforcement officers, National Guardsman and other government workers that would deal with crowd control. The story goes back and forth from a trial to a group going for the flag.

***
OK, here’s what made the film worthwhile for me. Watkins actually used non-actors in the film to write their express their own views suing their own arguments. During the trial portion of the film, the non-actors–both conservative and liberal–are using their own arguments. Watkins also chose not to rehearse; thus, this was the first time the actors had been in the same place together. Because of this the arguments and the emotions behind them seem very authentic. You can see the strongpoints and flaws in both sides, which is a good thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that captures the counter-culture and establishment arguing in such a way before. It’s not always rational or civil, but it’s real and valid points of view managed to be expressed and responded to.

The film ends up being a parable of the times, and, perhaps, that’s a bit heavy-handed. Still the arguments between the two groups makes the film worth watching. I also felt like I saw the roots of the current liberal and conservative camps–particularly in the way current tensions about the war in Iraq play out in America.

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