As 2011 draws to a close it should be noted that this year marked the 40th anniversary of Peter Watkins' "Punishment Park" — a small pseudo documentary about young anti-establishment protesters being tried for crimes against the United States. The young protesters are given a choice: several years in federal prison, or punishment park, where they'll be forced to walk across 50 miles of California desert to win their freedom. Along the way the young people must avoid the police chasing them and survive the desert heat without water.
Upon its release in 1971, "Punishment Park" screened for exactly one week in a Los Angeles theater and was quickly forgotten. It wasn't until the success of director Peter Watkins' later films that "Punishment Park" would be given a second look now.
This year has seen an entire world in protest. From massive protests in the Middle East, to recent anti-government rallies in Russia and finally, to our own Occupy Wall Street protests. Time magazine even named "The Protester" their 2011 Person of the Year. While these movements were not directly inspired by this 88-minute film, the themes and visuals very much apply to today's world.
Ultimately, "Punishment Park" is about social class roles, racism and the nature of morality. Some of the arguments made about the direction the United States are very much a product of their time. But the imagery of police brutality shows eerie similarities with the N.Y.P.D. and Oakland police departments' actions toward Occupy Wall Street protesters. Four decades after a limited release in one Los Angeles theater, the movie stayed alive through magazine articles, bootleg copies and word of mouth to become not only a warning for those who abuse their power, but hopefully a lesson about how to engage in political protest.
Fifty miles across our desert on foot without water is nothing to sneeze at even if you're not being pursued by armed assholes, but I'd choose it. You'd only have to outsmart one cop to have both water and a weapon. Then you'd have a fighting chance.
More about the movie here. Get it here.