In 1967, New Yorker TV critic Michael J. Arlen famously called the war in Vietnam “television’s war.” He wasn’t suggesting TV news flooded our living rooms with images of bloody battles, which might have turned Americans against the campaign. There was some of that, sure, but compared to old WWII newsreels, which showed atrocities with regularity, televised war coverage, though frequent, was relatively tame: anchormen reading incomplete military-sourced dispatches and field reporters offering over-the-shoulder “glimpses’‘ of the aftermath of conflict—and misleading or outright false glimpses at that. Arlen likened the experience to a child looking through a keyhole “at two grownups arguing in a locked room,” catching “isolated threats without meaning.” It was the context—and a truthful delivery of it—that mattered to Arlen, and neither appeared in great abundance on TV.
Support for the war eventually waned, mostly because the war dragged on, and one could no longer deny that the US had militarily met its match. Meanwhile, progressive social movements were exploding across American campuses and streets, and reactionary forces were innovating new ways to quell dissent and turn back the clock.
In 1971, the English director Peter Watkins entered the conversation with Punishment Park, an 88-minute cinematic rebuke of American tyranny at home and abroad, and of its beloved “idiot box” as a propaganda tool. If television gave Americans a keyhole view, then Watkins kicked the door down with his pseudo-documentary set in a California desert. In this brutal tale, two film crews, one British and the other West German, chronicle the detention, trials, and sentencing of two fictional groups of nonconformists ensnared in an twisted fictional experiment meant to restore “law and order” to a fracturing country. Watkins, a longtime student of revolution and injustice, was keen to disabuse Americans of their rhetoric about equality and freedom and show them what was at stake if one flouted the rules.
The film begins with a hypothetical premise: What if the state, in its quest for stability, took full advantage of the notoriously illiberal Internal Security Act? The bill, also known as the McCarran Act, had been passed by a rabid, paranoid congress in 1950, at the height of the Red Scare, overriding President Harry Truman’s veto. Among its many provisions, it established the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB) and the Emergency Detention Act, allowing the state to round up dissidents and bunk them in concentration camps. There had been a precedent for such an egregious abuse of power less than a decade earlier, when the federal government incarcerated more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens. Punishment Parkimagines President Richard Nixon invoking the law and declaring an “internal security emergency” and setting into motion a truly authoritarian regime.
As the film opens, the National Guard is in the process of arresting known rabble-rousers and placing them in unwinnable tribunals, whereby they are given the choice between lengthy prison sentences or taking their chances with an obstacle course called Punishment Park. All of our subjects choose the latter, and the film crews, wobbly hand-held camera in tow, follow the prisoners at every step: the tribunals, the transport in the back of Army trucks, and the three days they spend attempting to reach an American flag planted in a craggy outcropping 53-miles away, a journey they must make on foot, without food or water. They’re told that if they reach the flag, they’ll win back their freedom, and if they fail, they must serve out their sentences.
The game, it turns out, is rigged. The police are itching to gun down a bunch of hippies at the first chance. The activists, terror stricken and debilitated by climbing temperatures, run for their lives, and when it’s unavoidable, some of them fight back in self-defense. The film itself comprises all that “footage” woven together into quickly cut, high-tension, nonlinear scenes, with testimonials and voiceovers supplying vital information to clarifythe chaos on screen. It’s a raw, disturbing experience, incredibly hard to watch. And yet, because the struggles are so relatable for anyone on the Left, one feels guilty for turning away.
Watkins, it should be known, is an anarchist. I don’t mean that figuratively. He embraces neither socialism nor communism but anarchism, a position few filmmakers—few people generally—claim. For anarchists, capitalism and states are irredeemable institutions, and this philosophy proposes non-hierarchical alternatives to manage resources and communities. In this world, anarchists say, there are bosses (or chiefs, or presidents), there are cops who do their bidding, and then there is everyone else. Watkins, it would follow, examines power in his films: who wields it, and how, and to what effect.
Born in 1935 near London, Watkins got his start behind the camera at the BBC, as an assistant TV producer, and throughout the late 1950s and early ‘60s made his own short films in his spare time. He first turned heads with his 1964 BBC drama Culloden, a historical reenactment of the Jacobite uprising in Scotland in 1746. Few directors would approach this project by interviewing subjects between and during fight scenes as though they were actual soldiers, but that is exactly what Watkins did. Besides helping invent the pseudo-documentary, Watkins innovated its cinematic sister, the “docudrama,” filmed reenactments of historical events (or, sometimes, in his case, a speculative future). In 1965, Watkins released The War Game, another BBC production the network declared too shocking for the British airwaves, even as one critic said it “may be the most important film ever made.” Privilege hit theaters two years later, a narrated “documentary” about a nightmarish future. (“A more conventional feature film,” Roger Ebert wrote, “with a plot and everything.”) And then Watkins gave up on England altogether and moved to Sweden, a self-exile that would lead him later to Canada, and Lithuania, and eventually to France, where he lives to this day.
“I’m fed up with playing safe,” he told Roger Ebert in 1967. “What I’m reaching for is a way to make the audience believe that it is not looking at a movie, or a ‘story’ but that somehow what it is seeing on the screen is actually happening at that moment.” This wasn’t easy to achieve with historical dramas like Culloden because its realism is undermined and takes a comical turn when a “reporter” interviews a Jacobite rebel in a tricorn hat. A similar effect occurs in Watkins’ most recent, and perhaps final, film La Commune in 2000, a nearly six-hour epic about the 1871 Paris Commune. But he had hit on the answer with his California desert “psychodrama.” This project would look, and feel, absolutely real.
The pseudo-documentary barely existed at the time (Woody Allen’s influential contribution, Zelig, appeared more than a decade later). Punishment Park was rooted in fact, sure, but with a fictional twist. How does one separate the truth from the artifice? Is it a 50-50 split? There was certainly nothing fakeabout the August desert heat. Those are actual army uniforms and tents and trucks. Most of the shaggy-headed 20-something actors were not professional actors. As they shout angry, ad-libbed lines, they seem already fluent in activist-speak.
Few gatekeepers, though, were open to such a healthy dose of reality. Hollywood shunned the film and refused to distribute it. The handful of critics who actually saw the work largely panned it. TheNew York Timescalled it“a movie of such blunt, wrong‐headed sincerity” and “the wish‐fulfilling dream of a masochist,” a screed that misunderstands the film’s primary goals by arguing that it “poses as a warning about what might happen here, but because it does little more than confirm our worst fears, it invites—quite recklessly—apathy instead of action.”
Whether or not the filminspires action is debatable, but that is hardly the point of cinema.Punishment Parkis less a warning about potential tyranny than a brave unmasking of that which was already here, albeit in exaggerated form. In this regard, it’s not unlike science fiction, and yet it features none of the genre’s hallmarks: no spaceships or gadgets, no made-up jargon, no funny clothes. The film issimplya view of America with a policy change. Critics offended by its depiction of oppression were following a long tradition of home-grown denial.
What sets Punishment Park apart from, say, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, another counterculture/oppression flick released the same year, is that Kubrick’s film offers a cynical view of rebellion—a juvenile gang commits cartoonish “ultra violence” against the English middle class, a “lawlessness” coded as white and male that includes rape and terrorizing the elderly—while Punishment Park depicts realistic activism rooted in anti-racist, feminist, and anti-authoritarian ethics. The state is the true villain for Watkins, and the soldiers and police the criminal gangs.
At a time when hippie culture papered over structural problems with platitudes about “peace and love,” Punishment Park presents an unflinching condemnation of systemic racism and oppression. In one tribunal interrogation, which turns into a heated debate, the chair of the fictional Silent Majority for a United America, a middle-aged white woman, loses patience with the defendant’s silver-tongued responses and resorts to childish hyperbole: “You are immoral,” she repeatedly screams. “You are immoral.”
The defendant, a white man, cuts her off: “You want me to tell you what’s immoral? War is immoral. Poverty is immoral. Racism is immoral. Police brutality is immoral. Oppression is immoral. Genocide is immoral. Imperialism is immoral. This country represents all those things.”
One clever device Watkins uses here is what I’d call an interrogation reversal. In unidirectional communication devices like television and radio, a listener isn’t able to immediately respond to claims or allegations. The same is generally true of court hearings, in which lawyers do the talking, and only in the service of a strategic defense. The idea of speaking back was a fantasy before the invention of social media, but in Punishment Park the fantasy is given space for consideration over and over again. In such moments the viewers have the opportunity to ponder both sides of the dichotomy, as though observing a political debate. At one point, the panel asks a Black activist and author if he’d use his platform to “call for revolution.”
“I would tell the story of Black people like it has never been told in this country,” the man says, erupting into a persuasive speech about the history of American oppression:
You talk as if this is some civilized nonviolent place, and it ain’t. America is as psychotic as it is powerful, and violence is the only goddamn thing that will command your attention. This country, America, was born in violence…I’m in this place right now because my people, my forebears, were violently brought here, like this, in chains, from Africa, where they were violently made to work…This land that we standing on, and all the rest that belongs to this country, was violently taken from the Indians.
This is what we call speaking truth to power. A half century later, the words are still radical—and, sadly, still relevant—but perhaps more than ever, average centrist white Americans are willing to consider at least some of them. If history has taught us anything, though, it’s that even if a sizable portion of Americans is open to criticism, an equal, if not larger, chunk adamantly opposes it. For better or worse—usually the latter—we Americans dig in our heels. The Nixon era is but one example. Watkins captures this extreme polarization, the sort of social tension that crops up every few decades, which the US and much of the world, is struggling through right now.
As noted, in interviews and his films, Watkins attacks the mass media for its complicity in harmful systems and for, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “manufacturing consent.” These critiques run all through Punishment Park:
“Do you condone the war in Vietnam, sir?” one defendant asks the tribunal member.
“Certainly,” the tribunal member responds.
“You do? Why?”
“Because it’s protecting our country.”
“Who tells you this war is protecting our country?”
“We’re fighting communism.”
“Well, who tells you this, sir?”
“I hear it every day.”
I hear it every day. The relentless bombardment of messages, overt and subtle—and perhaps subliminal—constitute, for Watkins, the culture-shaping, conformity-enforcing power the mass media deploys. At a 2012 Tate Modern retrospective of his work titled The Media Crisis, Watkins told an interviewer that by making movies that seem “real” he intends “to confront the carefully cultivated myth of ‘documentary reality,’ in an effort to assist the public to re-examine many of the central premises behind the cinema and television.” Fiction, too, can be sneakily dishonest, Watkins says, hiding its “hierarchical (and commercial) ideologies behind the mantle of entertainment and ‘a good tale.’”
For a career that spans more than 60 years and includes about a dozen films, Watkins remains fairly obscure. Some of his films, such as The Journey, which runs just under 15 hours long, have rarely found an audience at all. Watkins’ cinematic subjects are heavy. There is little joy. Not everything he does is overtly didactic, though the notion that art can be apolitical doesn’t hold up in Watkins’ world. Everything is political. Everything teaches. To deny this is to live in comfortable illusions that “neutrality” is possible, that the default standard doesn’t already hold beliefs often taken as natural and therefore good, which in the West holistically reflects white, heterosexual norms. “If I could wage full-time war, I’d wage it on such words as ‘objectivity’ and ‘propaganda,’” Watkins told an interviewer in 1982. “I mean The War Game has been shot down for being propaganda, and this by the BBC which has transmitted pro-government, pro-nuclear-weapon films. I mean this is how fucked up Western society has become in its perception of reality.”
In the past few years, a reckoning is unfurling among academics, artists, librarians, and journalists, arguing much the same. The most critical members of these professions are asking the tough questions, and pointing out that impartiality, a core value of modern journalism, is already imbued with manifold assumptions and ideologies. Which article gets commissioned and how is it framed? Which books are placed on library shelves? Which archives are digitized? Whose films are overlooked at the award ceremonies? Which subjects are taught? Whose culture is valued in those decisions? Whose lives are overlooked? And, perhaps most importantly, who gets to decide?
At the end of Punishment Park, as though to demonstrate that such an act is possible, the documentarians can no longer stay silent and dispassionate after they witness the police prevent, with savage beatings, a group of prisoners from reaching the flag. From behind the camera, an indignant British journalist shouts at the officers that the whole world will soon know about this unconscionable crime. “Why did you do that?” the journalist asks. An officer fires back, “Because they goddamn well deserved it,” and he inches toward the camera. “Stand back, stand back. Don’t you come near us,” the journalist screams. Watching it now, I’m reminded of the summer of 2020, after the Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. As protests erupted across the country, and indeed the world, riot police tear-gassed and brutalized protesters and journalists alike. One journalist lost an eye. Others wound up in jail. In response, the photojournalist Barbara Davidson told The Guardian, “When the president declares you an enemy of the state…Well the police, their job is to protect the state, right? So if they view us as the enemy they will treat you any way they choose.”
President Nixon would repeal the worst parts of the Internal Security Act in September 1971, nine months after Punishment Park was released, but social turmoil remained. In hindsight, the film seems both prescient and eternal, as much a part of the zeitgeist now as it was 50 years ago. Much of the liberal West is catching up to what Watkins knew all along: we might one day live up to our ideals of equality, justice, and freedom, ideals inscribed in those sacred documents that we love to invoke. But it will require a hard—and honest—look at the ugliness all around us, especially in our troubling past. We will have to challenge our long-held assumptions and beliefs. Nothing less, and much more, can possibly usher us into a better world.