It is with a heavy heart and opened eyes that I bring you a review of a forgotten masterpiece.
Before going ahead, it’s basically impossible to talk about this film in the longform without minorly spoiling it. Without saying anything I think everybody should watch this film. Acquire it any way that you can, then come back and read my take.
‘Masterpiece’ is a word thrown around a lot, with little responsibility for what it actually entails. I reject this paradigm, as the film I watched late into the night yesterday is a beautifully crafted masterpiece, and that’s because it is the most tactile film I have ever seen.
Punishment Park is a painstakingly crafted mockumentary film designed to look and feel like a real political documentary right out of the late 60s and early 70s. First revealed in 1971 at The New York Film Festival, the film was so immediately contentious with its politically charged content that nobody would distribute it, some going so far as to classify it as fascist/communist propaganda. Luckily today, in the age of the internet, there are numerous ways – both legitimate and illegitimate – to watch this lost treasure of filmmaking.
I came across Punishment Park listening to an absolutely stunning piece of music that sampled a few notable quotes directly from the film. The quotes intrigued me enough to look them up, thinking they must be from some powerful speech I hadn’t heard or other somesuch altercation in history, only to discover that the quotes come directly from a film I’d never heard of. Immediately, I set about contacting my favorite movie-buddy (with whom I love watching politically contentious films for the sake of the interesting arguments we have about them) and we both set up to watch.
I was expecting a movie that started discussion, that’s not what happened. The statements this movie makes are so incredibly intense and end so abruptly, that we were virtually speechless the moment the credits began to roll. The farthest one of us got was ‘I liked the way they ended it’. It took us several minutes to even form coherent thoughts on the film, and its content was so direct and unfaltering that neither of us felt there was anything to argue about.
Punishment Park takes place in a moderately dystopic (Relative to the time) future America, one where the Vietnam War scare was at its peak and cold war tension was on the rise by the day. The film follows two groups of people, one on trial, and another whose trial was already complete. This forms a constant juxtaposition between the brutal punishment these ‘criminals’ receive and the type of trial that got them landed there in the first place.
The premise of this ‘Punishment Park’ is simple – it’s an alternative to prison sentences (some of which exceed a decade). Reach the end of a 50-mile course in the desert and reach the American Flag planted there, and you’ll be let free. They must endure days of downright torture and abuse, real hardship, to please their country at the end of the line, all while running from the police-in-training hot on their heels.
Among these people are normal folk, extremists, pacifists, even violent rebels. These people come from all walks of life and backgrounds, but they have one common trait, they don’t believe the Pro-war, communist hysteria propaganda. For this they’ve been branded ‘traitors’ to America via their various methods of resisting the mainstream narrative, and they’ve been sent to this camp, to undergo a trial without a jury of their peers, in front of an already very obviously biased judge and interrogators.
This is a simple setup, but it allows for exploration of the economic and social angst of the time. I expected this from the quote I had heard combined with the context of the time the film was produced in – what I did not expect was for it to echo today’s politics so intrinsically that it was downright haunting to sit through.
Constantly throughout this trial the defendants are berated, censored, brutalized, asked leading question after leading question. In addition, Punishment Park itself is a hoax, the Ultranationlist police training camp looks for absolutely any excuse to brutalize or to draw a gun, and almost everybody dies undergoing this penal program. One of the characters even draws direct attention to this by screaming ‘I have the right to complain! I have the right to complain about what you’re going to do to me! You’re gonna put a bullet-‘ At this point, the scene cuts to one of the other people traversing punishment park, shot through the head by one of the police officers in training.
This type of juxtaposition is a constant motif throughout the film, the vast majority of which plays two scenes alongside each other, cutting back and forth between each constantly to highlight the constant cycle of unjust punishment perpetuated against these people. Not even all of these people are truly innocent, some are real criminals. The penalized group has a splinter that breaks off and assaults a police officer, stealing his weapons and fighting to the end in a bloody final stand (later, this is used as an excuse to brutalize and kill several other peaceful members of the group). Regardless of their criminal status, the film drills you with how backed into a corner these people are, and how unjust everything that happens to them is.
The content of the film is contentious and direct, it does not pull any punches for taste, doubly so considering the time it was produced in. This movie will upset you. It’ll get under your skin, it’ll challenge your beliefs, it’ll challenge your entire political ideology no matter where it comes from. But what of the film’s quality? The production and acting? Can it sell such a difficult topic without it appearing forced?
The answer is a resounding Abso-fucking-lutely it can. The film hired a bunch of amateur actors and put them into as real of a situation as possible, with only rough guidelines as to what should happen and how the film’s plot should progress. All the while, the film crew captures it all. Every bloody conflict and personal musing is laid bare for the audience. The camera man himself is a character – in a particularly powerful scene he berates a young national guardsmen who had just shot no less than four people in the heat and stress of the moment.
The main film I’d compare this method to is the original The Blair Witch Project. but I think it takes the concepts popularized by this film and does with them more than could reasonably be expected from the best in the industry. This – on its own – is impressive considering that Punishment Park is an actuially nearly 30 years older than The Blair Witch Project. Ontop of this, at a downright microbudget of $95,000, this film accomplishes so very much while working with so very little. It shows a bold, unfaltering confidence by shooting a large portion of its scenes outdoors, a rarity among independent filmmaking, as an indoor environment is much easier to control.
Because of this method of filmmaking, everything you see on the screen is real. Every heated debate and ideological discussion, every projection of fear or disgust or sociopathic dismissal. Indeed, the amount of emotion conveyed by every single actor in this film with nothing more than a look is staggering. You can see the pain in their eyes, you can feel the emotion of what they say and how it comes from a place deep inside them, a core part of their being. The realism and texture to this universe is breathed to horrific life through every last character and extra. In fact, it’d be exceedingly easy to pass this off as a real documentary. People stutter and stumble over their words, they try to say things that should have meaning or power but flub the wording. It doesn’t feel written, and I think that core aspect creates one of, if not the single most astonishing and engrossing political drama in the history of filmmaking.
Whether you’re interested in the politics, the cinematography, or the acting, and while it is very hyperbolic – this film will wrench you right out of your comfort zone and into its world of fear, censorship, and violence.