Filmmaker and media theorist Peter Watkins was no stranger to political filmmaking and reconstructing actual events in a faux-documentary style by the time he made Punishment Park in 1971. His first short film, The Web, was a reconstruction of events that took place in France during the Second World War, while his most popular short film, The Forgotten Faces, which earned him critical acclaim and awards is a reconstruction of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. His first feature-length film from 1964, Culloden, was a recreation of a brutal battle that took place in Great Britain during 1746. This film was very similar in style and content to Punishment Park as it aimed to criticize those in power at the time for allowing such a horrible battle to take place. Watkins conveys this by employing the same mockumentary style and off-camera voice (which he voiced himself and can be seen as a connecting force between his films as he did this often) that we hear in Punishment Park. It is this use of post-documentary form that granted him the title of “the father of the modern docudrama” according to some film theorists (Cook 228).
This essay will deconstruct and examine how Peter Watkins used his mockumentary films as a form of activism by using the filmmaking process as a way of protesting against the Hollywood system. In particular, looking at how he would use future timelines in his films as a warning for the way that society is heading, as well as the ironic backlash that Punishment Park had received which led to it being silenced ultimately proving the point he aimed to make with the film.
Peter Watkins was a very controversial figure within the film industry while he was still active during the 60s and through the 90s. He took issue with the way that Hollywood forced filmmakers to make their films in specific ways and because of this, he would stick to his “theoretical principles which he had formulated to be deliberately oppositional to mainstream, established filmmaking” (228). He would do this by making films that would merge dramatic performances with a documentary or verité shooting style that would mimic the sort of urgency and authenticity that would normally only be found in documentary films. Because of this, his films would feel and be similar to newsreels that you would watch on the TV (228).
This desire that Watkins had to go against “what he felt to be the ‘falseness’ of Hollywood in the dramatic representation of reality” when it came to the portrayal of war and conflict on screen is something that was common amongst many amateur filmmakers of the time (229). However, Watkins stood out because he refused to compromise his vision and what he thought to be his ethical working style for the studio higher-ups. He would go as far as to essentially sabotage his own studio deals such as the time that he was asked by a studio to remake his anti-nuclear war film The War Game. He had accepted a modest budget and then used said budget to further the cause by developing new anti-nuclear warfare organizations. This raised the budget of the film so far beyond what he accepted that the studio dropped the project (MacDonald 33).
Although never claiming that his mockumentary films were true documentaries in that they have no essence of fiction at their core, these films would be made to feel very realistic even if it wasn’t faithful to the time period. Specifically, referencing his first feature-length film Culloden, in which we follow a camera crew that is documenting a battle that takes place in the year 1746. Certainly, it makes no sense for a documentary crew to be running around in 1746, but Watkins plays this completely straight as we see interviews with soldiers and generals that are fighting the battle. It is the seriousness with which he treats the subject he is portraying through this mockumentary lens that implies that the film is taking place in an alternate reality/timeline in which a documentary crew could be sent back in time to film such an event. Peter Watkins uses the mockumentary form in order to question those in power and hopefully convince the oppressed to become more active in reclaiming their freedom.
Watkins was so concerned with his films feeling as realistic as possible as to make sure his message got across like a newsreel’s would, that he would go to painstaking efforts to make sure his films looked as authentic as possible. An example being in his short film The Forgotten Faces, in which his team went the extra mile in order to portray the freedom fighters by going through hundreds of photographs from the time in which the event took place and matching their actors’ costumes and makeup to look as close to the actual people as possible. This authenticity seemed to work as when the film was released, many of its audience members thought it to be a real documentary and not a recreation (229). This was also helped by the fact that Watkins would use non-actors whenever he could. He much preferred to use regular people who have experience with the actual struggles the characters are going through so that the performances came off as more authentic rather than purely dramatic (232).
Punishment Park, directed by Peter Watkins and released in 1971 follows a documentary crew as they document the events that take place within the Punishment Park, a correctional facility in the middle of the southern California desert in which its prisoners, mostly young activists, are put on trial and given a choice of whether they’d want to serve their full sentence in prison or attempt a stint in the park that could lead to their release. This attempt would involve them having to run through the desert for four days to reach an American flag that has been placed 53 miles within the desert while simultaneously being hunted by the police. If they reach the flag they get released and reclaim their “freedom”, but if they fail to do so they must carry out their entire sentence in prison. We are shown their trials which involve arguments between the detained and the tribunal in which the conservative court refuses to listen and also knowingly goes against the constitution. All of the prisoners choose to take their chances in the park, rather than immediately be sent to prison. By the end of the film, we see that the system is fully rigged and all of the participants are either murdered or captured when they are greeted by an army of police officers waiting for them at the American flag.
This film was initially meant to be a dramatized recreation of the trial of the Chicago seven (later to be made as an easily marketable Hollywood film by Aaron Sorkin and released on Netflix in 2020) in the vein of his past mockumentary work. You can still see this in the themes, as well as the court hearing scenes in the film as they closely relate to the trial of the Chicago seven. This version of the film got as far as the casting process before Watkins got the idea to make Punishment Park instead. He changed his mind because of the interactions he had with the non-actors, many of whom were actual activists against the government’s abuse of power, and the horrifying life experiences that they shared with him. Watkins explains that the idea for the park itself came from hearing about the anti-communist concentration camps that the American government was planning to create under the rule of Richard Nixon (Watkins 4:09).
Mockumentary Techniques as a Warning
Before getting into the political meaning of this film, we must first acknowledge some of the post-documentary techniques that Watkins utilizes to grab the audience’s attention, beginning with the aforementioned non-actors. By this point in his career, Watkins “now had a deliberate policy in his films of using… non-professional, actors” as he felt this was the only way to achieve a feeling of realism (Cook 229). This is clearly proven in Punishment Park, since the actors both on the side of the activists and on the side of the court’s tribunal were shouting their true beliefs at each other (although the tribunal were told to play up their beliefs a little bit), making for much more realistic performances because to some degree the people weren’t acting. The fact that their arguments were real, and their anger was real is what drives their performances and the film forward. Watkins claims that the results he got from this were “for [his] money something [closer] to real life” (229). This drives the mockumentary form as although the film itself is scripted; the bulk of the conversations are not which is a heavy contributor to the documentary tone that this film has.
Another technique that Watkins uses in Punishment Park that is normally reserved for true documentary films is the constant breaking of the fourth wall. Throughout the film, there are many scenes in which the characters either look directly at the lens and at the audience, as well as interviews in which the characters are directly addressing the camera. Besides this being a good technique to make the film feel more like the newsreels that Watkins’ is emulating, it is also working as a direct “invitation to the audience to enter the film itself, making a connection with their fellow members of the public” in this case the public meaning the non-actors (232). It is this address to the camera that allows the audience to believe that when the tribunal members say things like “I think there should’ve been more spank and less spock in America and our youth wouldn’t be what they are today” while directly addressing the camera in an interview, that these people truly believe that Americans need to be controlled in order to live in society. This, along with the fact that the tribunal members who say these things mean them, which further convinces the audience and further invites them to take action against the oppressors. It allows the audience a “greater level of identification and participation with [the] events taking place on-screen” despite them being purely fictional (232).
This leads into another mockumentary technique that Watkins uses in the film to add to its realism which is the acknowledgment of the camera crew; the journalists who are seen as on the side of truth and therefore on the side of the people. It is with this technique paired with all the others that Watkins’ warning of a damned future begins to come through. For the entirety of this film’s runtime Watkins places the camera crew right in the middle of the action. The crew watches helpless prisoners be sent to the desert and be murdered at the hands of the police or captured in a manner that breaks their own set laws. The fact that this crew is witnessing and documenting all the atrocities that take place should give the audience members a sense of relief. However, the ending scene of the film completely negates this sense of catharsis.
Unlike in Watkins’ previous mockumentaries, in which the narrator is removed from the events of the film, presumably recording his narration from the safety of a sound booth, this film places the narrator right in the action with the rest of the crew so that he has no choice but to be attached to the horror and form his own thoughts rather than reading from a script. In the final scene, we see one of the groups in the park almost reach the flag but they are stopped by police officers who were waiting for them, cheating. We then see the group of prisoners be viciously beaten and murdered by the unprovoked officers while we hear the narrator who is now far from the camera’s microphone yelling in the distance for the police to “stop it”. It is after this that we are given the warning. We see that the narrator is now afraid of the police as he yells “don’t you come near us” which is Watkins showing us that the press is not safe from the claws of the government. We see the cops lie straight to the camera (the audience) as they attempt to justify themselves in a way that they believe the American people will accept, despite the footage saying otherwise, thus suppressing the truth. The scene (and film) ends with the sergeant promising that this will happen again.
The journalist has failed, and the only thing left for him to do is “hold on to his evidence” in hopes of it being broadcast to the world (Kawin 237). However, unlike Watkins’ older films in which the narrator is detached from the action which gives off the sense that the documentary has already been edited and broadcasted, this film ends with no guarantee that the atrocities will ever be shown to the people of this future timeline. The reality of this film has failed to be saved by the freedom and information of the press. It ends with an understanding that the police will continue to be unaffected by the meddling truth seekers as they are the ones in control (232). It becomes truly disturbing when you connect this film to the age of the camera phone. This films themes are still relevant today, because we still see the arm of the government (police) disregarding the video evidence and continuing to murder knowing that they will not be held accountable and are safe while the activists and protestors are being kidnapped off of the streets by unmarked vehicles containing armed men. The government is safe. The people are not.
Watkins made this film so bleak in hopes that “this sobering experience [would] act as a braking effect to the usual media portrayal of Western society as ‘happy’… with no need to worry about the future” (Watkins 396). He used the mockumentary form to attempt to have realistic images and interactions so that people will feel angry and compelled to stand up for their freedom rather than stay complacent and accepting of their government’s wrongdoings.
Punishment Park, was a commercial failure proving Watkins’ criticisms of the media to be true as they suppressed his pro-freedom message. “One of the most important strategies of critics is to blame a film for not being realistic enough” and that’s exactly what the critics did (Mavromatti 1). The film was criticized for being too paranoid and the characters for being too obnoxious despite them being real people stating their real opinions. Calvin Green went as far as to call the activists “irate martyrs all dressed up in sacrificial raiment with no place to go” and to write “what can be said about a paranoid fantasy that delineates young radicals as ranting spastics” thus minimizing their impact, silencing the activist’s true opinions, and arguably siding with the conservative tribunal (Green 1). The film was also suppressed by those in charge of the filmmaking system that Watkins opposed as it was refused much theatrical play and refused any distribution in America, proving Watkins right in that those in charge will always oppress that which they find to be a threat to their position (Watkins 294). It is also important to note that this film is still somewhat hard to find to this day as it has yet to receive a widely available home video release in North America.
Peter Watkins’ film Punishment Park aimed to use the mockumentary film form as a form of activism to try and get the American people to see the direction that their country was heading in and hopefully feel jarred enough by the film’s newsreel feel to attempt to do something to change that. He did this by using documentary techniques such as casting non-actors, breaking the fourth wall by looking into the camera and having interviews directed at the camera, and by having the characters acknowledge that the camera crew is in the middle of the horror with them. The sentiment that the police will be unaffected by their recorded atrocities was proved right when his own film was suppressed from the eyes of the public and especially when his concerns continue to come true five decades later.
Cook, John R. “‘Don’t Forget to Look into the Camera !’: Peter Watkins’ Approach to Acting with Facts.” Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 4, no. 3, 2010.
Green, Calvin. “Punishment Park.” Cinéaste, vol. 5, no. 2, 1972, pp. 31–32.
Kawin, Bruce F. “Peter Watkins: Cameraman at World’s End.” Journal of Popular Film, vol. 2, no. 3, 1973, pp. 231–242.
MacDonald, Scott. “Filmmaker as Global Circumnavigator: Peter Watkins’s The Journey and Media Critique.” Quarterly Review of Film & Video, vol. 14, no. 4, Aug. 1993, pp. 31–54.
Mavromatti, Oleg. “Post-Cinema Manifesti.” Oleg Mavromatti, olegmavromatti.com/contact/.
Watkins, Peter, director. Culloden. BBC, 1964.
Watkins, Peter, director. Peter Watkins on “Punishment Park”. YouTube, 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxb0ed9izis.
Watkins, Peter, director. Punishment Park. Churchill Films, 1971.
Watkins, Peter, director. The Forgotten Faces. Playcraft Film Unit, 1961.
Watkins, Peter. “Punishment Park and Dissent in the West.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 4, 1976, pp. 293–302.