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  • Gareth Crook

Punishment Park (1971)

Peter Watkins’ pseudo documentary imagining an even more fucked up America than the one we currently face. Quite a feat. US jails are full, but those pesky hippies and draught dodgers are still up to no good. The choice: 15 to 20 in jail or a few days in Punishment Park. We follow a mock film crew as they track the latest batch of accused to the Californian desert hell hole. It’s not for the faint hearted, it’s frighteningly realistic. Largely shot hand held with a cast that whilst made up of unknown actors are effortlessly believable. It’s quite difficult to watch, even before it’s divulged what’s to happen in the park... the prisoners are to be hunted, under the guise of National Guard training exercises. It’s clear we’re routing for the prisoners, they are articulate and educated. “America is as psychotic as it is powerful and violence is the only thing that will command your attention”. Those in power are redneck bullies and the overzealous establishment. The prisoners get a head start in the desert heat. Just the clothes on their backs, as they search for water and the flag/border/freedom. It’s never clear just how things might work out, but let’s just say there’s little confidence in justice being done and the journey is as disturbing as any possible destination. I said at the start this paints a bleaker picture than the current reality. Maybe that’s true in that Punishment Park isn’t real, but the arguments and issues shown here are alive and well on America’s streets today and that’s scarier. “It has chosen the politics of polarisation”. It’s frustrating to watch and despite being fiction, there’s enough truth here to give this a frightening amount of weight. America and Americans do some great things, but it’s still one of the last places on the planet I’d chose to live. “How would you remedy what’s happening in America today? I don’t think it can be done, we just have to evolve out of it”, here’s hoping one day.



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