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Punishment Park

Peter Watkins

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Punishment Park
Directed by: Peter Watkins
(New Yorker Video)
Punishment Park is a chilling and haunting pseudo-documentary about how the American government decides to deal with “traitors” and “dissidents.” An opening voiceover explains how Nixon uses the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act—the right to collapse the traditional justice system and detain anyone who is “a risk to internal security.” During detention the detainees are brought before a tribunal for sentencing. They can either go to jail or spend three days crossing 60 miles of desert without water or food while being dogged by National Guardsmen in a brutal game of capture the flag. If they win, they go free. If not, they go to prison. Over the course of the film the guards get more hostile in the desert heat and the rebels get pushed out of their pacifist ideals with disastrous results. Though it can be easily dismissed as a paranoid fantasy of the hippie era, the film’s intentions are still relevant today. Watkins shot it on 16mm with a skeleton crew, for a newsreel feel, with a handheld camera in the cinema verite style, with non-professional actors and a lot of improvised scenes. Released in 1971, it has been buried as a condemnation against the US, leaving it without American distribution. Even in 2006 the content is brutal, but this is a work of genius unlike any other.
—Trevor MacLaren

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