Punishment Park

By | May 30, 2010


Rolling Stone called it “The best film about dissent in America.” In Peter Watkins’ 1970 film, as the war in Vietnam is escalating, there is massive public protest in the United States. President Nixon declares a state of national emergency and gives the Federal authorities the power to detain persons judged to be “a risk to national security.” In a desert zone in southwest California, a civilian tribunal passes sentence on groups of dissidents and gives them the option, in lieu of hard time in the penitentiary, of participating in law enforcement training exercises in the Bear Mountain National “Punishment Park.”

The film is frightening and realistic — hard, at times, to remember it is (mostly) fiction. It is also strikingly contemporary — the “game” in Punishment Park is very much like a reality TV show. It is violent, the language is raw.  For it to make sense, the film has to be watched in its entirety (88 minutes.) As part of The Class of Nonviolence,  I would show it as part of lesson 7, on civil disobedience. In addition to the expected conflict between the activists, the judges, and law enforcement, is an equally compelling tension among the activists — between the pacifists and those who believe in the inevitability and / or efficacy of violence — that could provoke interesting discussions.

There are useful “extras,” including a talk by filmmaker Peter Watkins about how the film came to be made and how it was marginalized. I would show the four screens of text that give the historical background of 1968, when the film was conceived, then show the film, and end with Watkins’ on screen essay. I rented the DVD from Blockbuster online; it is also available for purchase on Amazon as a standalone DVD or as part of a boxed set of five Watkins films.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *