Punishment Park Review

1970: the Vietnam War is getting more and more unpopular amongst the youth. The protest against it is so widespread that Nixon has declared a state of emergency and activated the Internal Security Act - this controversial law allows the President to bypass the Congress and detain without bail or proof of guilt anyone felt to be a threat to Internal Security. The Police have started rounding up anyone who can fit the bill - pacifists, human-rights activists, black power supporters, hippies - and bring them to the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park where a make-shift "popular" tribunal awaits them. The sentence being given out is invariably the same - a long time in prison or play Punishment Park. Punishment Park consists of running 52 miles through the desert to the American Flag in less than 72 hours. No food or water is provided and security forces start chasing you two hours after your departure. Still when you're offered the choice between that and jail, only a fool wouldn't give it a try...

Watkins could be described as the cinematic equivalent of John Pilger - they share the same passionate fury at injustice, have left-wing leanings and tend to be dismissed as just angry "young" men... Watkins first made a name for himself by pioneering his very own style of "speculative documentary". His infamous The War Game - a realistic enactment of the after-math of a nuclear war - shocked the nation and got itself banned by the BBC. Despite everything Watkins is still active after 40 years and recently produced a modern-day re-enactment of the French Commune of 1871 - although with a total length of 6 hours, you're unlikely to see it playing at your local arthouse.

In Punishment Park, he once again uses non-professionals in his film, merely asking them to act out their political beliefs - the result is rough but gives a realistic feel to the verbal confrontations. The cinematography mimics the documentary style to perfection with the entire film being shot with handheld cameras and the permanent use of a voiceover (Watkins himself). On the other hand the elliptical narration of the film and the editing are extremely well thought out and work quite effectively making the film seem less like an isolated event but a regular occurrence. Given that it sets out to look like a documentary, it's quite difficult to flaw it on the likes of script or direction - arguably the less successful it is in these areas the closer it comes to reality. However, the film works incrediby well and is highly watchable like most of Watkins work - it keeps you wanting to know more without ever becoming a pleasant ride - exactly like a well made documentary.

Politically this is pretty much as controversial as films can get - granted it isn't La Bataille d'Alger but it freely paints the US as a country merrily embracing fascism. Naturally, Punishment Park has been boycotted there since it was released, being rapidly removed under dubious circumstances from the cinema in which it premiered. Though technically not banned in the US, the film has never been screened there since. Whether Watkins' vision was accurate or not is still pretty much open to debate: although the US is no longer under a state of emergency, with the advent of Camp X-Ray and the current administrations' questioning of the validity of the Geneva convention, some would argue that Watkins' nightmarish vision has moved even closer to becoming reality. Correct or not, Watkins does elegantly point out the potential dangers of government's being given excessive power in "exceptional" times and the way a country can rationalise their need for fascism - although the viewer may find it difficult to recontextualise the film, it is at this level that the film will prove to be the most potent.

The DVD:

The image:Given the age of the film and the state it was probably in, this is a very good effort from Doriane Films - the copy used does have some occasional damage on it (reel change burns, glitches) and grain is quite apparent on close inspection but to a certain extent this only adds to the authentic nature of the film! Bar that the colours are nicely saturated keeping the warm yellowish tones of the desert but there's a certain amount of artifacting visible especially in the dark areas of the print but this is not too distracting. A very good transfer considering the age and the likely difficulty to source good prints.
The 4:3 aspect ratio is also respected although they have done some kind of alternative anamorphic transfer giving the image a greater width which is then compressed to the correct ratio by the player - an excellent way of increasing image definition. Finally it should be noted that the encoding is not PAL but NTSC - probably to allow the film to be distributed in the States given that the DVD is also region free.

The sound:We get the plain original mono. The sound is at times a little rough and ready but again that's at least in part intentional. Globally everything is clear and there's little to complain about.

The menus:We get the choice at the beginning between French and English menus. After that we're faced with quite basic still menus. Nothing new here but they work fine.

The extras:These are particularly well thought out - aside from Watkins filmography, we also get a copious amount of written documents about the film. There's four pages on the context, the making of the film and the US screening; added to this we also get press reactions in the US (5 pages - highly negative), in the UK (8 pages - more mitigated than the US) and France (2 pages - positively ecstatic!). The text size may be a little too small on some TVs although I had no trouble viewing it on a 32" widescreen TV.
As an extra bonus we get Watkins first two films - the first one is The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (15 min) - a short film about the horror and absurdity of the first world war - filmed in B&W in 1959, this is an incredibly confident piece of work demonstrating Watkins talent in the making. The sound sadly is very muffled at times and verges on incomprehensible - there are French and German subtitles but none in English - still with some practice, one should be able to understand what's being said. The print is quite damaged throughout but viewable all the same.
The second film is Forgotten Faces (18 min) - here Watkins re-enacts the 1956 Hungarian uprisings but using only documentary style voiceover - all the actors are British but manage to fool us into believing they are Hungarian freedom fighters. With gun battles and explosions, this is an amazing poignant film which when it was shown in 1960 would have been even more powerful. The sound this time is much clearer than on the previous film and works fine. The image is also slightly better but still quite rough and raw but always viewable.The inclusion of these two shorts which have not been available for years warrants the purchase of this DVD alone - they are fantastic standalone pieces in their own right and are perfect demonstrations of how to make a political point with a film.

Conclusions: The film itself is an outstanding cinematographic pamphlet from Watkins - he's not here to entertain but to give the audience an electrified wakeup call. Doriane Films should be commended for this release - the transfer is as good as one could expect and they really worked hard to provide some decent extras.

If you wish to purchase this DVD, you can order it directly from Doriane Films.

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