It's very rare today when a film raises so much anger and fear among viewers that no studio, theatre, or distributor is willing to touch it for more than 30 years, but Peter Watkins' specialty is to create highly provocative works that were ahead of their times.
"The War Game," Watkins' 1965 feature-length documentary, was originally commissioned by the BBC, but was shunned from the airwaves - only to win an Oscar Award in America. Incorporating dramatic footage with non-professional actors, the film showed the results of a nuclear attack on London, and preceded grim docu-drama works like"Threads" (nuclear war in 1984 England), and "Dirty War" (terrorists explode radioactive elements in 2004 London).
Clearly a pioneer of the docu-drama and mockumentary formats, Watkins was engaged by a major Hollywood studio to make a pair of historical films, but when the projects faltered, the director decided to examine the conflicts and violence then happening in America, and latched onto a daring, futuristic project that had the country adopting a doctrine to create a training program where authorities could learn crowd control tactics, and anti-establishment hippies are legally wiped out.
Those familiar with "The Blair Witch Project," and more so with "Man Bites Dog," will find themselves a bit perplexed that Watkins' overtly political film is still regarded as one big hot potato. Part of this problem - which clearly rankles the director and his supporters today - stems from the mythic status of "Punishment Park"; regarded as a suppressed masterpiece, one gets the impression there's something so shocking, it'll make us run and hide, but it's Watkins depiction of America gone fascist that was the problem with contemporary audiences and critics.
The beauty of "Punishment Park" lies in its power to provoke discussion; you can't watch it and simply let the memory drift away like some generic direct-to-video fodder. Watkins' film is also a serious time capsule of America in 1969, as the director cast his film with physical archetypes that matched characters patterned after real activists - the most obvious being Abby Hoffman, Joan Baez, and Bobby Seale. (With rare exceptions, such as prolific character actor Carmen Argenziano, most of the cast was comprised of non-actors, placed in Watkins' improvised, role-playing scenes.)
In "Punishment Park," Watkins also plays the unseen director of a film crew - one of several international news units from Europe given full access to the park's kangaroo courts, and the desert chase - who's ultimately drawn into the drama when the police don't quite play fair as the hippies struggle to reach the course's finish line, and win their freedom.
New Canadian label Project X kick-starts their release slate with the film's first North American home video release, and the beautifully designed DVD comes packed with extras that help us understand the period events that led to the films' creation, and it's status as an orphaned film in need of a fatherly distributor. Historian & author Dr. Joseph A. Gomez provides an excellent commentary track, emphasizing the film's structure and editing that follow two specific groups about to be 'punished' (one set to begin the race, the other prepped for sentencing), and aspects of American society that Watkins was sharply criticizing.
Is it all a naive rant by an Englishman, clouded by a strong sense of anti-Americanism, or a savvy parable of restricted civil liberties invoked in spite of the hallowed U.S. Constitution?
That's something audiences have to decide for themselves (though Watkins makes one creative boo-boo in his narrative - that these journalists are allowed to take their fly-on-the-wall footage and broadcast without any governmental seizure. It's a tough conceit to swallow, given the restrictions imposed on journalists during the first Gulf War, and the 'embedded' copy that was filtered back from the Iraqi war front through military censors).
Watkins also wrote/directed/edited a short film in 1961 called "The Forgotten Faces," which is included on the DVD. Again using amateur actors, Watkins recreated the events of the short-lived Hungarian uprising against Soviet aggressors - pretty daring for a young filmmaker, and amazingly effective, given the war-ravaged alleys were shot in Canterbury, England.
Like the included essays and the film's original promo text, the extras trace Watkins' knack for recreating plausible crises, and for setting up serious moral dilemmas, and Project X's debut release ensures the director will no longer be marginalized as a curious footnote among cult filmmakers of the past 30 years.
Films by Peter Watkins available on DVD from Project X / New Yorker Video include Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959), The Forgotten Faces (1961), Culloden (1964), The War Game (1965), Privilege (1967), T he Gladiators (1969), Punishment Park (1971), Edvard Munch (1974), and The Freethinker (1994), and La Commune (2000) from First Run Features.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan