Punishment Park Review

PUNISHMENT PARKPeter Watkins once described Punishment Park as taking place “tomorrow, yesterday or five years from now” and it is a statement that applies as well now as it did when he first said it in 1971. Punishment Park is a faux-documentary that focuses on a number of ‘political prisoners’, who are given the choice between serving out a prison term for their perceived crimes or three days in ‘Punishment Park’.

If they choose Punishment Park, before an unjust jury, they must travel on foot across an area of desolate American land in an effort to reach their goal, an American flag. They are promised that halfway along their journey they will find water and if they reach the flag they will be set free. Chasing them throughout their ordeal is a group of law enforcement officers who are assigned to Punishment Park as a training exercise.

The film begins by cross-cutting between a group of prisoners making their way across Punishment Park, the officers who are about to follow them training with lethal weapons and a trial of a group of new prisoners. The stories come to a head, the officers and the prisoners clash and the end, much like the film in general, is an incendiary indictment of a dominant system that is completely out of control.

Characterised, following its première, as something of a hysterical left-wing masochistic fantasy Punishment Park could so easily have been just that but the film is far from it and in the intervening years it has become more and more apparent that the film is far from hysterical but actually coldly reflective of the society in which we live.

Whilst the US government is not quite in the same situation as we see in Punishment Park there are certainly parallels that can be drawn between the film’s core conceptual conceit and situations in America and around the world. The temptation is of course to applaud Watkins for prescience, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp being a possibly obvious reference point, but significantly Watkins is tapping into something far more disturbingly general about the way in which human beings can behave to one another and the abuse that often occurs when a powerful entity crosses a line. Bringing to mind the work of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, Punishment Park is disturbing and affecting not because it comes across as simply savage satire but because what occurs feels all too real.

This review was originally posted at Bleeding Cool.