- Paul Dale
- 18 February 2010
'Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit.' Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989) American political activist and author; co-founder of the Youth International Party (Yippies)
If the revolution will not be televised, then at least we can be sure that the genocide that follows it will be. Peter Watkins' remarkable, largely unseen 1971 pseudo documentary, or 'figurative depiction in a documentary style' examines a 48 hour period in the tribunal halls and parks of imaginary anti insurrection parks in California during the Nixon administration. Draft evaders, demonstrators, anti war militants and assorted free thinkers have been apprehended because 'there is reasonable ground to believe that they probably will engage in possible acts of sabotage in the future'. This was hardly a stretch of the imagination in 1971 - the Kent State University riots, anti Vietnam sentiment and disparagement of an aged Republican government had the US silent majority of squares on the run. The idea of reasserting parentally violent control on 'out of control young radicals' would clearly appeal to reactionary classes.
Criss crossing between Corrective Group 637 in the desert with the tribunal examination of the members of Group 638 Punishment Park shows both the bureaucratic and military cruelty meted out on cerebral insurgents. The scenario is set up so that the single camera (handled by the brilliant camera woman Joan Churchill) is acknowledged by the cast members as if it were a real television crew. What follows is direct, occasionally hysterical and terribly prescient -- the siege of Fallujah comes to mind, as do the Seattle riots and the iniquities committed by the staff at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. In short, even at this remove Punishment Park seems like a stunningly depressing prophecy, the only conclusion to be from which is how little we have learnt in the thirty odd subsequent years.
A masterpiece of a kind - Punishment Park belongs to that small group of cherishable US indie film polemics from the 1970s that include Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool and Robert Kramer's Ice. Watkins’ film - as his biographer Joseph A Gomez pointed out -- 'is an experimentation with realism and expressionism, with documentary and metaphor' and that these things have 'helped to make this film universal and, alas, all too prophetic.Punishment Park is seminal political cinema of the highest order.
Tramway, Glasgow, 7pm, Friday 26 Feb (showing as part of Glasgow Film Festival).