Punishment Park

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"An evocative synthesis of Bertolt Brecht and cinema verité, Peter Watkins's dystopic fiction depicts a United States where government authorities, citing the McCarran Act, detain political activists on the grounds that they 'probably will engage in . . . acts of espionage or sabotage.' The film follows the televised trial of one group of detainees and the progress of another who have opted for a grueling endurance course in lieu of lengthy prison sentences. As the Daily Mail remarked upon the film's release, 'A few years ago we might have dismissed the film as the figment of a crazed imagination. Today its documentary overtones are all too horribly real.'" (Kate MacKay, Associate Film Curator, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive)

"[Watkins is] the most prescient, innovative, and accomplished of overlooked English-language movie masters." (Amy Taubin, Artforum)

"Peter Watkins is a remarkable director, whose visionary films deserve - no, need - to be far better-known: this stupendous, earth-scorching missive is one of his very finest." (Sukhdev Sandu, Associate Professor of English and Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University)

1970. THE WAR in Vietnam is escalating. President Nixon has decided on a secret bombing campaign of Cambodia. There is massive public protest in the United States and elsewhere. Nixon declares a state of national emergency, and - we presuppose in the film - activates the 1950 Internal Security Act (the McCarran Act), which authorizes Federal authorities, without reference to Congress, to detain persons judged to be 'a risk to internal security'.

In a desert zone in southwestern California, not far from the tents where a civilian tribunal are passing sentence on Group 638, Group 637 (mostly university students) find themselves in the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, and discover the rules of the 'game' they are forced to undergo as part of the alternative they have chosen in lieu of confinement in a penitentiary. Group 637 have been promised liberty if they evade pursuing law enforcement officers and reach the American flag posted 53 miles away across the mountains, within three days. Meanwhile, in the tribunal tent, Group 638 - assumed guilty before tried - endeavour in vain to argue their case for resisting the war in Vietnam. While they argue, amidst harassment by the members of the tribunal, the exhausted Group 637 - dehydrated by exposure to temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit - have voted to split into three subgroups: those for a forced escape out of the Park, those who have given up, and those who are determined to reach the flag ...

(from Peter Watkins' personal website; more information here: http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/punishment.htm)


Two early short films by Peter Watkins - THE FORGOTTEN FACES and THE DIARY OF AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER - plus filmography, documents, and articles about the film.

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