Peter Watkins | 1971 | 88 min | US
It's the middle of the Vietnam War in American and tensions are high on all sides of the debate. A bunch of filthy soap-dodging hippie dissidents are brought before a tribunal on vague charges of subversiveness. Without a hope of any other possible result, each young dissident is convicted of their crimes. For their sentences they are given a choice between a lengthy prison sentence or a stint through Punishment Park: a sadistic three-day obstacle coarse in the California desert. And what kind of a fool would choose a ten-year sentence over 72 hours of jogging? BAD CALL, HIPPIES.
Punishment Park is divided into two parts that we shuffle back and forth between, each part following a different group of young people. One group claws their way through a punishment park sentence, while a second group stands before the heavily weighted tribunal and awaits their inevitable sentencing.
The film we see is presented as footage shot by an international television crew who is present to ensure that the actions of the tribunal and the military police pursuing the prisoners are above board. Filmmaker Peter Watkins sticks to a verite documentary style, utilizing a very small crew and even appearing in the film himself as the director. The actors are clearly put through the ringer, forced to endure the oppressive desert heat and the berating of the tribunal. Punishment Park consists of a great deal of improvisational dialogue and there are many moments were it looks like the actors are about to fly off the rails. Their physical and emotional exhaustion are evident.
I expect Punishment Park was seen as terribly incendiary upon its first release. At the time the Vietnam War still raged and increasingly violent leftist activism was polarizing America. This film was withdrawn from North American theatres after only four days into its release in 1971. Its subject matter and delivery are a heavy viewing experience even today. Hell, especially today. Every single piece of dialogue about "national security" (and there is plenty) sounds disgustingly familiar. Highly recommended viewing.