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This 70s Sci-Fi Mockumentary Predicted Our Current Political Climate

In 'Punishment Park,' English filmmaker Peter Watkins imagined an America at war with itself. Not much has changed.

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

Beeld met dank aan de filmmaker

In the 1971 film Punishment Park, countercultural activists are rounded up, tried in an emergency tribunal, and given the option to either go to prison or take a three-day trip to the desert for a forced 53-mile trek as a form of discipline. The mockumentary, directed by English filmmaker Peter Watkins, is a dystopian sci-fi film that imagines Nixon-era America going full-on fascist against various activist movements. The mechanism behind the film's premise is the McCarran Internal Security Act, a law that was actually passed by Congress in 1950—despite being vetoed by President Harry Truman—then in hysterics over the idea of a subversive communist threat.

Watkins' narrative is framed as two fictional British filmmakers shooting a documentary about America's Punishment Park, as the desert compound is called. The scenes, which show two groups of dissidents on an exhausting trek, are intercut with interviews in the field, as well as scenes from the emergency tribunal where anti-war, feminist, and African-American activists are tried and convicted. In this way, Watkins presents the then-current perspectives of those on the right and left.

While the film experienced immediate distribution problems and alienated some critics for left and right wing talk that they felt bordered on parody, the issues explored in the film remain incredibly topical and relevant. From the conditions faced by Guantanamo Bay detainees and the rise of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Women's March, to the Tea Party and Donald Trump's campaign, the rhetoric on both sides is remarkably similar, even decades later.

"The characters, the defendants, are all pretty recognizable counter-cultural 60s and 70s-type individuals," says Oliver Groom, distributor of Watkins' films, including Punishment Park. "[But] those attitudes, or let's say those rebellious political stances, are almost universal, so it's not surprising, in my opinion, that it continues to have relevance."

In dialogue between activists and law enforcement, Punishment Park showcases fears and concerns over social and moral decay (in the form of conservative hysteria over free love and drug culture), economic injustice, police brutality, and environmental degradation, to name a few issues.

"When I got involved with [the film] 12 or 13 years ago, it was really beginning to be seen again, and people were reacting to it as a really prescient film because Guantanamo Bay was the hot topic at the time," says Groom. "Later on, the Occupy movement started picking up on what Punishment Park had to say, too, and at one point Peter and I were contacted by people in the Occupy movement about screening the film in that context."

Watkins' film leans heavily to the left, making its right-wing tribunal seem reactionary, small-minded, and insensitive. These perspectives persist to this day and are amplified by politicians like Bernie Sanders and Trump. But Watkins' film also highlights how dialogue between the left and right has been progressively stunted: everyone is talking, and hardly anyone listening.

"Do you want to listen or do you want to talk?" a Black Panther, played by Kent Foreman, asks the emergency tribunal in the film. "You don't want to hear my message. You've spent 50 years evolving a propaganda system that will take the truth and change it into what you want to hear. You don't want to hear shit that is gonna mean you might have to give up something."

His statements meant one thing in 1971, but the dialogue resonates in 2017 for quite another reason. With the rise of fake news and propaganda, individuals and organizations increasingly bend, twist, or deny the truth completely until it fits partisan rhetoric. "It doesn't have to happen this way," one dissident muses while in the desert. "If we can somehow create a change of spirit, a change of mind, it doesn't have to happen."

In a filmed self-interview published in 2004, Watkins suggests that people critical of the film were missing several important points. For him, Punishment Park is not just a metaphor for social and political conditions in the US at the time. It is an attempt to illustrate the assaults by a racist police force and the US government's military actions against Southeast Asia, which he felt the American media and education system refused to fully acknowledge.

"What is the relationship of the film Punishment Park to today?" Watkins asks viewers. "There are now two million people locked up in American jails and prisons… There are the brutalities of the American concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and the sordid US-run prisons in Iraq, as well as the recent discovery of a hitherto-unknown American military prison-gulag in Afghanistan, in which the inmates—Afghan prisoners of war—are sexually harassed, deprived of sleep, and subjected to various degrees of abuse, brutality, and humiliation."

"There is the loss of civil liberties represented by the recent US Patriot Act, which was passed by Congress before any representatives had read it, and which allows the state to treat dissenting citizens as if they were members of Al Qaeda," he adds. "To what degree can the film Punishment Park remain dismissed as a so-called 'paranoid fantasy?'"

Click here to learn more about Punishment Park.

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