The year is 1970. The war in Vietnam is escalating. There is massive public protest in the United States. The federal authorities are authorized to detain all persons judged to be “a risk to internal security”. In a desert zone in southwestern California, not far from the tents where a civilian tribunal are passing sentence on Group 638, Group 637 find themselves in the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, only to discover the rules of the ‘game’. They have been promised liberty if they can reach the American flag posted 53 miles away across the mountains – dehydrated, in scorching desert heat and pursued by a squad of heavily armed police and National Guardsmen.

A relentless depiction of suppression and brutality, Peter Watkins’ provocative, pseudo-documentary Punishment Park, originally envisioned as an account of the Chicago Seven trial, is one of the key radical films of the late 1960s, early 1970s. A criminally marginalized, rarely seen and long suppressed masterpiece by the visionary director of Culloden and The War Game.

“Peter Watkins’ film is a cinéma vérité masterpiece of technique. Utilizing non-professional actors, only one camera, and an almost totally improvised script, he’s come up with one of the finest films about dissension in America that’s been made in a long time.”
Rolling Stone

“The discomforting notion that American society has caught up with Watkins’ dystopic vision is evidenced by the complete turnaround of critical response to Punishment Park. When the film played at the New York Film Festival in 1971, critics responded with irritation and contempt. The New York Times‘s Vincent Canby dismissed Punishment Park as a movie that ‘projects present realities into a vision of the future that is more fascinated by the effects of horror than concerned with the causes.’ Nearly thirty-five years later, however, as critics who heaped unqualified praise on the DVD release noted, Watkins’s projections are with us in the form of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, the power grab by the executive branch through the War Powers Act, and, of course, Survivor.”
– Amy Taubin, Artforum International

“British filmmaker Peter Watkins may well be one of the few true visionaries of the moving pictures. His provocative, politically insightful and radically independent work has suffered marginalization for decades, but it has gained renewed appreciation during the last years. The case of The War Game (1965), a grim and unforgiving (if hypothetical) reconstruction of a nuclear attack on England, is emblematic: The BBC, who had commissioned the film, put a 20 year ban on it even as it went on to win an Academy Award as best documentary film (although scripted, staged and acted) in 1967. Watkins regularly presents his fictions in ‘documentary’ style, which enhances the immediacy of his social dystopias.”
– Österreichisches Filmmuseum

“To find tracks of Peter Watkins in a dictionary or a history of cinema you might as well hire a private detective. His works remain hidden, or forbidden, in most cases. /…/ Punishment Park, which is now available for the audience, more than twenty years after its first screening /…/ reveals what was – and still is – carefully hidden behind Mickey mouse’s big smile. /…/ A tale in which Walt Disney would have put his anti-Communist and anti-Semitic opinions into practice, and turned his gigantic leisure parks into concentration camps. /…/ Punishment Park is also a great lesson of cinematography, excluding any kind of didactic attempt.”
Le Monde


USA, 1971, 35mm, 1.37, colour, 88′

directed by Peter Watkins
written by Peter Watkins
cinematography Joan Churchill, Peter Smokler
editing Terry Hodel
music Paul Motian
cast Carmen Argenziano, Harold Beaulieu, Jim Bohan, Stan Armsted, Paul Alelyanes
produced by Susan Martin (Chartwell Artists)