Star and Shadow Cinema Presents
Dir: Peter Watkins, USA, 1971, 91 mins, BluRay
Sun 27 October // 19:30 / Cinema
Faced with growing opposition to the Vietnam War, President Nixon decrees a state of emergency. Hippies, feminists, activists and other 'dangerous' elements are rounded up and given a choice; a full prison sentence, or three days at Punishment Park, where they will have to cross miles of desert without food or water, whilst being pursued by National Guardsmen. If they make it they are free. A documentary crew from Europe follows the proceedings.
All the themes of Watkins’ work come together in his masterpiece, Punishment Park. Anticipating both exploitation films(Turkey Shoot, Battle Royale) and mainstream Hollywood(Hunger Games), the film mirrors some of the events of the time, but also seems oddly contemporary when viewed now. Most of the actors were non-professional, and many held similar views to their characters in the film. Much of the dialogue was improvised. The film, as intended, provoked a strong response. It was removed from US cinemas after 4 days. Once again, it has gradually seeped back into public consciousness.
Peter Watkins - An English Radical film season we present 5 of Peter Watkins' films, mixing his better known works such as The War Game and Punishment Park, with the rarely seen The Gladiators. The selection of films gives a flavour of Watkins unique style, and provides a powerful critique of mainstream media, and the Hollywood derived narrative style which he refers to as the 'monoform'.
His body of work is one of the most formally inventive of any British filmmaker, displaying a relentless questioning intelligence, and his predominant use of documentary techniques gives an urgency and immediacy to the material. Many of his films were poorly received on release, yet in this era of fake news and celebrity culture seem totally relevant.
Peter Watkins was born in 1935 in Surrey, and started his film making career at the BBC in the early 1960s. His first film was Culloden, made in what would become his trademark documentary style. Meant to echo the style of reportage from Vietnam, historical events are portrayed in an urgent contemporary style. His next film, The War Game turned to near future events, documenting the effects of a nuclear strike on Kent. Banned by the government of the day, it was the end of Watkins career at the BBC. He then made Privilege, his first narrative feature for Universal. The film was poorly received on release, but has grown in reputation since. After Privilege, Watkins moved abroad and has never returned to the UK. Moving back to his documentary style he made Punishment Park in the USA, and the Gladiators in Sweden. More ambitious works followed, a near 3 hour biopic of Edvard Munch, Resan, a 14 and a half hour work made across the world, addressing nuclear madness,and The Commune, a 6 hour recreation of the Paris Commune.
Thanks to Peter Watkins and the BFI for their help in organising this season.