By Hemanth Kissoon
“You don't wanna hear my message. You spent fifty years evolving a propaganda system that'll take the truth and change it into what you wanna hear. You don't wanna hear shit that's gonna mean you might have to give up something. You don't want it. All you wanna do is sit on your fat, dividend-drawing ass and draw dividends.” Defendant Lee Robert Brown
I don’t write it often: This is a masterpiece. Ahead of it’s time. Relevant 31 years on. Brilliant. Upsetting. You need this film in your life.
Released in 1971 at the height of Vietnam and Nixon-era oppression, PUNISHMENT PARK is an imagining of the very near future (something like five years time), where under the “1950 Internal Security Act… the President of the United States of America is still authorized, without further approval by Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an ‘internal security emergency’. The President is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage. Persons apprehended shall be given a hearing, without right of bail, without the necessity of evidence and shall then be confined to places of detention.” What we then witness is a faux-documentary (before it has become so fashionable), capturing a nightmarish and wholly believable vision of the total subversion of democracy and the right to a fair trial.
There is permission for camera crews to record a (sham) hearing of alleged criminals, who articulately and passionately defend their positions and rail against the injustices happening around them in society. An inevitable guilty verdict (not from any jury of their peers), leads to a choice between a hefty prison sentence (15 to 21 years), or three days in a “Punishment Park”. Expert editing juxtaposes this tribunal, sat upon by hypocrites, those bereft of morality and the ignorant, with the proceedings in the titular park. There appear to be several scattered around America. This one is Bear Mountain Punishment Park, a hostile desert where the sentenced have to reach an American flag 53 miles away, within three days, without being given water, and being hunted after a two hour head-start by heavily armed police. It may seem like sci-fi, but it is handled so deftly it feels like such outrages are possibly imminent. The re-release in the aftermath of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib make PUNISHMENT PARK all the more haunting. Added to this the banking crisis, where the film talks about class, poverty, capitalism and freedom of speech, rivet this in the here and now. Juggling ideological imperatives and visceral filmmaking is wow-inducing. There is also the sense of being hammered, compounded by the incessant background noise of guns going off.
This all would be stunning in of itself, but in addition, is the commentary on cinema and reporting; with the faux-documentarists not giving those trying to survive in Punishment Park water, while losing supposed objectivity later on, confronting the brutality of what they witness.
Timely and timeless.