History Repeats Itself (or How 1971’s Punishment Park Could Be Made Today Without Changing a Frame)

Written by Allan Mott

When I was a kid, other kids were always shocked by how much I knew about history and I was always shocked by how little they knew about history. The reason why I was shocked was because I knew my knowledge didn’t come from obscure sources, but the same movies and TV shows they were watching. Apparently I was just paying better attention.

Being a movie buff also means becoming a historian of sorts. Not just in regards to the biographies of the people responsible for the films we love, but also so we can appreciate the context with which those works were made. Of course, these days this isn’t an entirely popular notion. Those that cry out, “L’auteur est mort!” do so in defiance of the very notion that we should give even the slightest fuck what was happening in the world when a work of art was created—all that matters is how it affects us now.

Personally, I consider this to be bullshit of the first order—automatically suspicious for being a theory developed by academic theorists that argues that academic theorists are the most important part of the artistic process, which is kinda like the dude who sweeps up the elephant shit at the circus arguing that without him the whole show is meaningless. Sure, it’s dirty work and someone has to do it, but we all know you wouldn’t have your job without the elephant, so don’t even front.

But, I digress. One of the side benefits of becoming a fan of any particular genre or era of filmmaking is that you get to know a lot about the real world history in which it flourished. Throughout my life I’ve found myself attracted to the study of history, but less as a means to its own end, but rather for how it allows me to better appreciate the art that fascinates me.

I write this, because as someone who loves the films of the 70s—a period regarded by many as perhaps the most important decade in the history of cinema—watching the films from that era constantly reminds me how much what we’re going through now is—in the popular studio parlance—a reboot of that similarly tumultuous time.

This decade could easily be considered the Jurassic World to the 70s Jurassic Park—bigger, louder and overly familiar without being nearly as satisfying.

And I can think of no film that highlights this better than Peter Watkins’ astonishing 1971 low budget mockumentary, Punishment Park. Inspired by Watkins’ outrage over what happened to protestors at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention and the subsequent trial of the Chicago Eight (in which activist Bobby Seale was infamously bound and gagged by the presiding judge), the film serves as one of the most powerful indictments of ideological polarization ever made.

The film is set in a speculative America, where the government has declared that protest is a treasonous act of terrorism punishable by decade-long prison sentences handed out by an ersatz kangaroo court made up of concerned, conservative citizens who show no interest in the constitution or rule of law. All of the men and women sent before this tribunal have already been judged guilty (some for nothing more than reading poetry in front of an audience or protecting a spouse being assaulted by the police) and are only there to determine the severity of their sentence.

Their only hope to avoid spending any time in prison is to agree to take part in Punishment Park, a training exercise where they will attempt to evade a force made up of various branches of law enforcement and the military as they travel 50 miles over three days in extreme desert heat without any supplies. If they make it to the America flag at the end of the park, their sentences will be commuted and they will be freed, but if the authorities catch them they will be sent to prison to serve out their full sentence.

The film is shot in documentary style with Watkins himself playing the part of director and narrator. We never see him onscreen, but he begins the film as a dispassionate observer, only to become a much more vocal participant as events unfold.

The action is split between two groups of prisoners, one set going through Punishment Park and another going through the farcical “court” process. And though everyone in the film is dressed in the clothes of the period, the arguments we see onscreen and the attitudes expressed feel utterly and painfully contemporary. The prisoners are (very justifiably) angry and outraged by the proceedings, only barely able to keep them seriously because they know the consequences are very real, while the members of the court stubbornly refuse to listen to or understand the concerns of those who they are ready to sentence. They claim to be much more reasonable than the prisoners because they don’t resort to invective and name-calling—ignoring the fact that they can afford to be calm because their lives don’t hang in the balance.

Though Watkins is clearly on the side of the prisoners, the film is fair enough in its treatment of both sides that it received just as much backlash from the left as it did from the right when it was released. The problem is that neither side is willing to give an inch and this mutual refusal to even consider compromise has escalated to a point of undeclared civil war, where those in power are preemptively imprisoning those who would fight against them. There is no debate here; just two sides shouting at each other, without even the pretense of listening.

It’s impossible to watch these exchanges and not think of countless online arguments we’ve witnessed or even taken part in over the years. The arguments on both sides are the same. This is especially true of the defence of the status quo we hear from the members of the court. The questions they ask the prisoners are the same you’ll find in the comment section of any remotely progressive online article—the kind asked rhetorically with the smug assurance that the deluded liberal before them can’t possibly logically answer it.

But as resonant as these scenes are, they are nothing compared to what we see in the Park sequences—especially in their depiction of the men who make up the force assigned to go after the prisoners.

…it is in these sequences where we can most appreciate how little the attitudes of those ostensibly employed to protect us have changed or evolved in the course of four decades.

Remarkably, it is in these sequences where we can most appreciate how little the attitudes of those ostensibly employed to protect us have changed or evolved in the course of four decades. The words we hear coming out of their mouths are identical to those we see in YouTube clips following the aftermath of events in Ferguson, Baltimore and every other contemporary incident where their methodology is called into question.

The film presents us with the cycle evident in every one of those situations. Early on, the prisoners split up into two groups. The first, larger group decides to play by the rules—assuming that the men chasing them will do the same—while a smaller faction decides the whole thing is rigged and decides to do whatever it takes to survive.

As a result, the smaller faction attacks and kills a member of the force, which causes the other officers and soldiers to declare that they are now personally motivated to retaliate against every prisoner out in the park—even though only a few of them were responsible for the violence. “That could have been one of us,” the officer in charge tells Watkins, unapologetically admitting that they are now motivated by revenge rather than duty.

Throughout the film, Watkins asks the authorities if they think what they are doing is wrong and they all insist that the prisoners they are chasing deserve to be there by virtue of the fact that they are there—refusing to accept the possibility that the system is corrupt and they are reinforcing injustice rather than preventing it.

The situation escalates when an 18 year-old national guardsman panics and shoots a prisoner throwing rocks at him. This is the moment where Watkins gives up all pretense of passive observation as he shouts at the clearly traumatized soldier, asking him why he felt it was okay to react the way he did. The moment seems especially real, since—apparently—the shooting wasn’t scripted and Watkins assumed that it was an accident and live ammunition somehow made it way into the actor’s gun. His anger is completely genuine, as is the look of terror on the guardsman’s face, which makes it hard to fully condemn the fellow authorities who defend him with all the same excuses we see today when an officer is caught committing an act of unnecessary violence.

But any trace sympathy we may feel in this moment vanishes as it becomes clear that the faith the prisoners have placed in the fairness of their pursuers is completely misplaced. The authorities prove they are only willing to play by the rules when the rules give them the advantage. As soon as that changes, they feel fully justified in breaking them. The prisoners arrive at the promised water station, placed midway through the torturous path, only to find it has no water. And those few who do finally manage to beat the heat, exhaustion and intense dehydration come to the flag only to discover their pursuers waiting for them; ready to shoot anyone who attempts to reach it and obtain the freedom they were promised.

The officer in charge tells the director that it doesn’t matter if the world sees what they have done, because he’s an American and it only matters what Americans think of him: a line of defence we still hear used today.

Watkins condemns this on-camera, with even greater ferocity than he showed the guardsman and his anger is met only with smug indifference. The officer in charge tells the director that it doesn’t matter if the world sees what they have done, because he’s an American and it only matters what Americans think of him: a line of defence we still hear used today. As viewers it’s impossible to not be disgusted by what we have seen, because we’ve gotten to know these prisoners and appreciate how their only crime was questioning the values of a demonstrably corrupt state.

The question the film leaves us with is if what we have seen here is an exception or the rule. As the prisoners from the second group all choose to participate in Punishment Park to avoid prison, we are forced to wonder if they will meet the same unjust fate as the first group. Is the system rigged to always work out this way or will they actually be allowed to earn the freedom promised to them? And if they do, will it mean anything in a society where speaking out against what they have been put through will surely mean having to go through all of this again?

Punishment Park is an apt title for a film that can be a punishing experience for its audience, but it is a largely forgotten film that NEEDS to be seen by as many people as possible today. It is a historical document that proves for all of the cosmetic progress we appear to have made, we’re essentially in the same situation we were 44 years ago—having the same arguments, fighting the same fights, refusing to listen, refusing to empathize, refusing to question because we fear what will happen if we admit weakness and accept that the system we embrace encourages corruption and poses a threat to the very people it was designed to protect.

One of the amazing gifts great films give us is the chance to recognize our faults in the face of the past—to see that for all the ways things have changed, we as people essentially stay the same. It’s a gift because it can inspire us to do better—to be better. Punishment Park came from a very specific moment in history, but it speaks as much to who we are now as any film you will see in a movie theatre today.

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