Peter Watkins' film Punishment Park is nothing if not a sincere cry for justice. Of course the film is a metaphor, a provocation, a sort of alternate reality that could have been a science fiction fable if it wasn't so naturalistic as a "fake" documentary. And of course there weren't 'Punishment Parks' in America in 1970 when the film was made, where dissidents and rabble-rousers and draft dodgers were taken and given the chance to either participate in the 'game' or go to prison without a fair trial. And sure, at the time, the film got panned for being too blunt an instrument of provocation, of being so much about its subjects of the US versus THEM element that it was too much.
But what can be said of the film today? At the time for those who didn't know it was a "fake" documentary, like in Finland, they panned the US government for allowing such a thing like this to happen! This is, perhaps, the best kind of compliment Peter Watkins could have received - certainly he fared better there than with the film critics who panned it and, ultimately, the film got four days of distribution by a no-nothing company before being pulled from NY city screens (it fared worse in being shown on TV or elsewhere, where for years it was just unavailable). Seeing it in 2010 is still a shocker some forty years later. Not because of what it says about its time and place, that's a given, about the rift between those in power and those not, but that it could still happen, in a slightly less extreme form, today (just look at the atrocity of justice with Guantanamo Bay for that).
There's something about this film that gets under my skin. It got its way in within the first ten minutes, by sinking its teeth with its structure, of it being a British documentary on this 'Punishment Park' out in the California baron wasteland (it could be Death Valley, but whatever it is it's unbearable conditions), and how nothing is made to look fantastic. The nerve of the film is like that of Night of the Living Dead in its no-holds-barred hand-held approach to photography (only in this case the police seem to be the zombies, albeit with more of a brain which is perhaps much more frightening). Watkins cuts between this demonstration of what the 'Park' is - a three to four day excursion from one point to another where those who volunteer (and there are many, as the alternative is years in prison) who have to get to an American flag. Which is not easy when you have police just getting ready and more than willing to kick the crap out of those dissidents and, of course, shoot to kill.
This is all meant as metaphor, and the most contemporary example I could think of as comparison would be District 9 (though that film didn't carry out its artistic premise anywhere near as thoroughly as this). But the metaphor is strong because of a) what was happening at the time, with Chicago and Kent State and the trial of the Chicago 7 (Bobby Seale's gagging during the trial is recreated here with one such African American on "trial"), and of the attitudes at the time. The what if shouldn't be diminished because of thinking practically about what would happen if this really did occur. What matters is making it seem real, carrying the documentary aesthetic and toying with it - Watkins goes from objective reporter to subjective "WTF"-ing at the police killing and maiming people from one scene to the next, which is chillingly effective - to make the experience last in the mind.
Aside from it being a rigorous example of film-making, and a satire that is about as funny as a burning school-bus on a field trip, Punishment Park gets some major points. And the fact that many in the film never acted before or wouldn't again (some of which were actual dissidents and protesters as the kids, and some of the cops were actual cops) heightens the tension and moral identity of the scenes. But really its ultimate impact is that it lasts, in the mind as well as the consciousness of a nation. The US has laws in place to keep this from happening, to be sure, but at what point does the line thin away? Most recently there's been question of how to put on trial those accused of terrorism against the US. That, too, is an extreme example, but, again, where is that line drawn? A question I was left with at the end, or thought people might have by the end of it, is "What will be done about it?" Or, more precisely, "What can be done?" It's a call to arms that shook me up and made me depressed, but I can't say it didn't do it in the way that matters. It's one of the great incendiary films in our history; that it's also an experimental piece in the realm of documentary-meets-fiction, breaking all boundaries for its message, is further extraordinary.