Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Peter Watkins Self-Interview on PUNISHMENT PARK
As anyone following this blog -- is anyone following this blog? -- will probably know, I'll be screening Peter Watkins' angry, subversive, and very politically relevant Punishment Park (that's a link to his own writing about the film; see here for images and press) on May 30th at Blim. I also recently wrote about Watkins for Discorder, and I previously posted an interview with Oliver Groom, the Canadian in charge of Project X distribution, which is seeing many of Watkins' films released on DVD for the first time (The War Game and Culloden are to be paired on one disc for their next release, on July 25th). At that time, Mr. Groom e-mailed me the following "self-interview" done by Watkins in 2005; since he has withdrawn from participating in interviews, as a protest against his years of marginalization, this is now really the only way anyone can interact with Watkins about his films -- he hasn't responded to my attempts to email him, and I gather he politely refused to attend Kier-la Janisse's screening - bless her - of Privilege last month as part of the Big Smash festival. I'm very excited about the upcoming event (and a little nervous); the film, made in 1970, posits an alternate America in which radicals are rounded up, tried for their "un-American" beliefs, and forced into a gruelling ordeal in the desert, and it's bound to provoke a reaction, though I'm not quite sure what that will be. (I somehow doubt it will be regarded as left wing hysteria, as it first was when it came out, though not everyone on the left likes it).
Thanks to Mr. Groom for that last link and for having forwarded the self-interview. See y'all on the 30th. The following is the complete text, including copyright disclaimer, as I received it, though the formatting has been changed somewhat by the act of cutting and pasting it, and I've had to re-insert paragraph breaks and boldfacing myself. I did not receive photos, so I am not including any. Those familiar with the DVD will recognize some of this from his statement thereon:
PUNISHMENT PARK Director’s notes
A newly-written self-interview by Peter Watkins
COPYRIGHT AND USAGE
The following text by Peter Watkins is copyright. Under normal circumstances, Peter Watkins is very willing for anyone to use quotes of reasonable length from his texts, for the purposes of education, thesis work, etc.. Peter is also agreeable to anyone printing the entire body of any of his texts, including for the purposes of education, providing that this is not for any commercial gain, and providing that the source is always named.
However, when it comes to the media, including alternative journals, different conditions need to apply for any usage of Peter Watkins’ texts. These different conditions are due to the marginalization of Peter’s work for 40 years by the mass media, who have mostly either attacked his work, accused him of paranoia, or refused to allow his critical analysis of the media to enter the public discourse via the means of the media.
With the advancement of globalization, this professional marginalization of Peter Watkins’ work - especially of his critical writings - has increased. This has manifested itself by journalists removing any critical references made by Peter himself (e.g., in an interview), and only quoting his comments about creative or production matters. Even when journalists do include comments by Peter Watkins re the crisis in the mass media or the political meaning of his own work, these elements are nearly always reduced or entirely removed by copy editors. The result is inevitably an unbalanced article, devoid of any political or critical context.
As a result of these and many other problems, Peter Watkins no longer gives interviews of any kind. His practice now is to prepare texts on his films in which he tries to cover as many creative and critical elements as possible, based on questions he has been asked in the past.
These texts are available to journalists, providing that the following requirements are understood and complied with:
a. that it is recognized that Peter Watkins’ texts are copyright and that due acknowledgment is made to the source.
b. that any quotes from Peter Watkins' texts be taken in fair and balanced measure regarding creative and production, as well as political and media-critical aspects of his work, in approximate proportion vis-à-vis his own reference to these aspects in his original text.
c. that the journalist and/or editor of the journal/newspaper, etc. concerned guarantee that copy editing will not specifically target, reduce or remove the political and media critical elements in any article prior to publication.
What was the background to making Punishment Park?
In 1968 I was in Sweden making The Gladiators. During this time I visited Oslo to screen several of my earlier films, and for the first time encountered the work of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. This led to the making of Edvard Munch four years later. But prior to that, in the summer of 1969, I moved with my family to the United States, where I had been engaged to produce a trilogy on the American War of Independence, the American Civil War, and the Wars of Colonialisation against the Native Americans. These films were to be financed by an educational subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, and were intended to be films along the lines of my 1964 BBC documentary, Culloden, for educational use and possibly also for TV screening.
This was a very difficult time in America’s history. President Johnson, a Democrat, is escalating the war in Vietnam. In 1968 the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army launch their massive Tet Offensive. There are 542,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. At home, the universities are in an uproar and the peace movement is growing rapidly. The militant branch of the Hippie movement, the Yippies, under the leadership of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and others, are preparing to contest President Johnson’s bid for re-election by having Pigasus, a Pig, nominated for President. At the same time, African Americans are demanding their rights, and the militant Black Panther Party is formed.
In March 1968, U.S. troops massacre over 300 unarmed men, women and children in the village of My Lai in Vietnam. A month later Martin Luther King is assassinated. Two months later, Robert Kennedy is assassinated. Then comes the critical Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago. In this period, Chicago is ruled like a medieval fiefdom by its reactionary mayor, Richard Daley, who is determined to prevent any manifestations of anti-war protest in his city; he brings in 12,000 police officers, 7,500 US troops and 6,000 National Guardsmen (a larger force, it is said, than the one led by General George Washington). As the Democratic Convention opens, a 17-year-old Sioux Indian from South Dakota is shot on the street by the police. The following day, seven Yippies and Pigasus the Pig are arrested. During that week, 308 Americans are killed in Vietnam, and over a thousand are wounded. Outside the Convention Centre, demonstrations against the war are savagely attacked by the police, who club, kick, mace and beat unconscious anyone in sight, including local residents. At a press conference, Mayor Daley states: “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
Eight activists, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and Black Panther member Bobby Seale, are indicted for conspiring to cross state-lines with intent to incite violence.
In November 1968, Richard Nixon is elected President of the United States.
On September 24, 1969, the Chicago conspiracy trial opens with Judge Julius Hoffman presiding. The defendants constantly ridicule the court proceedings. In November Judge Hoffman orders Bobby Seale gagged and bound in the courtroom. The trial of Bobby Seale is separated from the main trial, which becomes known as the Trial of the Chicago Seven.
On December 4, in an early morning raid, Chicago police fire nearly 100 rounds into a west side apartment. Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, and Party member Mark Clark are killed.
In the meantime, my educational film project is collapsing. In the winter of 1969, I spend several months completing the script of a long documentary on the Civil War battle of Antietam, The State of the Union, knowing already that the film will not be made. By the spring of 1970, my family and I are preparing to leave the U.S. Then, President Nixon launches his ‘secret’ bombing campaign on Cambodia, and the protests grow even stronger. On May 4, 1970 four white students are killed, and nine others are wounded at Kent State University in Ohio, when a contingent of the Ohio State National Guard opens fire during a noontime demonstration...
This is what made you decide to make Punishment Park?
The shootings at Kent State were certainly the turning point for my decision to stay in America, and to try to make an independent film on what was happening there. At first my idea was to make a dramatized reconstruction of the Chicago trial of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale and the other activists.
A friend in Los Angeles, Robin French, an executive in an actors’ agency, offered to have his company finance this project to the tune of $50,000. Susan Martin, who had been working with me as production manager on the collapsed history series, offered to produce the film. So we all moved to Los Angeles. But as soon as I began to meet people in the process of casting the film - a number of whom had already been arrested for protesting the Vietnam War - it quickly became obvious that their stories and experiences were even more vivid and relevant than a verbatim filming of the Chicago trial.
How did you arrive at the idea of punishment parks?
During this time I came across the anti-Communist ‘McCarran Act’, or the ‘1950 Internal Security Act’, as it was also known. This draconian U.S. legislation provided for the setting up of places of detention (in effect concentration camps) for those accused by the government of subversion, or of even considering subversion. From this nightmarish piece of legislation I devised the idea of ‘punishment parks’ being set up by the U.S. government as a way of dealing with both the increased dissidence, overcrowded prisons, etc., and with the need to provide field training for law enforcement officers faced with having to put down growing public protest against the Vietnam War. This device gave me both a metaphor for the repression and polarization which I saw happening in the United States at that time, and also a framework - a sort of psychodrama - within which the proponents could express themselves.
What can you tell us about the filming?
Punishment Park was filmed in late August and early September 1970. Our location was the El Mirage dry lake in the San Bernardino Desert, about 100 miles from LA. This, we say in the film, is the site of the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park in California. The scenes in the film are cross-cut between the desert - as we follow a group of convicted dissidents carrying out their sentence of having to cross 60 miles of harsh terrain in the extreme heat to reach the American flag, whilst under pursuit from law enforcement officers - and a large military tent on the edge of the Park, where the next group of dissidents is being judged and sentenced by a civilian emergency tribunal.
Amongst the members of the crew were Joan Churchill as photographer, and David Hancock as art director. [PHOTO OF JOAN CHURCHILL] In this photograph you can see Joan Churchill holding a 16mm camera, with which she accomplished one miracle of mobility and improvisation after another. If you’ve ever tried hand-holding a 16mm camera, attending to framing and focus, while running over a scrub- and rock-covered desert, with temperatures soaring into the 40s, you’ll understand what miracles Joan accomplished. In fact, the whole crew - not more than 10 people, including casting assistants - were marvellous, and we managed to film Punishment Park in just under 3 weeks.
Tell us about the cast, and the psychodrama you mentioned.
The cast were as amazing as the crew. With a few exceptions, none of them had ever acted before. In the film you have two categories of ‘performance’: those who were expressing their own opinions, and those who opposed their own personal convictions - who were role playing, if you like. The activists - whether in the desert or in the tent - were all portrayed by young people living in or around Los Angeles. [PHOTO OF THE ACTIVISTS IN THE DESERT] As I recall, in some cases we loosely modeled some of the roles on people like Joan Baez, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Bobby Seale and others, but in all cases it is the actors’ own opinions, arguments and convictions which dominate in PP. Most of the young people in the film were radicals, and some of them had already been in prison for their beliefs. So in the film they are expressing convictions which were very important to them.
[PHOTO OF THE TRIBUNAL JUDGE OR TRIBUNAL MEMBER] In the case of the conservative forces - the members of the tribunal and the law enforcement officers - some were expressing their own points of view, and others - as I say - were role playing. Some of the men playing the police officers had been police officers, others not at all... The amazing thing about this film is that you cannot tell which is which.
I think this says some interesting things about our possibility - even in polarized situations - to be able to see and understand (and even interpret on the screen) an opposing point of view. So, those who accuse Punishment Park of polarizing opinion have not really understand the further dimensions of what happened during the making of this film.
How did you get this level of improvisation from your actors?
First of all, I don’t ‘get’ improvisation from the actors in my films, they have the capacity to improvise within themselves. What I do is provide a framework and an environment for their self-expression. [PHOTO OF FILMING IN THE TENT] In the case of Punishment Park, to help the actors express themselves as freely as possible, and in order to heighten the reality of the circumstances for them, the ‘tribunals members’ and the ‘activists’ did not meet in front of the camera until we began to film their scenes. The main verbal confrontations in Punishment Park - the tribunal scenes - were filmed in a windowless, stiflingly hot military tent. There were no rehearsals. Each person had prepared their own background (largely based on themselves) - each worked out their own position and lines of defence or attack.
I have called this method of filming ‘psychodrama’, and most of my films have worked around the edges of this process. But the degree to which this happened on this film, and the extent to which we digressed from a written script here, represented a decidedly new step in the direction of my work. I had come to realize that allowing the actors - including the conservative members of the tribunal - spontaneity and freedom of expression, would not only strengthen the film, it would act as a practical demonstration of my critique against the traditional methods of the mass audiovisual media, with their rigid adherence to tightly controlled narrative structures, dialogue, and editing patterns, as represented by the Monoform. But what is most important to me about this film are the ‘ordinary people’, the public, who were participating in this challenge - in particular the kind of people, and the kinds of opinion, that you usually do not see or hear represented in, or by, the mass audiovisual media.
You often speak about the Monoform - what do you mean by this?
I have been writing about the Monoform for nearly 30 years, and sending out public statements to the mass media and to media educationalists... You can find an example of my analysis in my latest website at www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins. Basically, the Monoform (an expression I coined in the mid-1970s, after analysing this phenomenon with students at Columbia University) is the internal language-form (editing, narrative structure, etc.) used by TV and the commercial cinema to present their messages. It is the densely packed and rapidly edited barrage of images and sounds, the ‘seamless' yet fragmented modular structure which we have all been staring at on our TV and cinema screens. This language-form appeared early on in the cinema, with the work of pioneers such as D.W.Griffith and others who developed techniques of rapid editing, montage, parallel action, cutting between long shots/close shots, etc. Now it also includes dense layers of music, voice and sound effects, abrupt cutting for shock effect, emotion-arousing music saturating every scene, rhythmic dialogue patterns, endlessly moving cameras, etc.
What is the problem with this method of presenting films?
There are certain variations in how the Monoform is used, depending on how it is structured in a studio-filmed TV soap opera, a Hollywood film, or the TV evening news. But all these popular forms of mass audiovisual media have characteristics in common. They are endlessly repetitive and predictable in their form - no matter what their actual content - and they are closed in their relationship to the audience. Despite any appearance to the contrary, they all use filmic time and space in one rigidly structured and controlled manner: according to the dictates of the media, rather than with any reference to the expanded and limitless possibilities of the audience. It is crucial to understand that these variations on the Monoform are all predicated on the traditional audiovisual media belief that the audience (pople) are immature, and that they need predictable forms of presentation in order to become ‘engaged' (i.e., manipulated). This is why so many audiovisual professionals rely on the Monoform: its speed, shock editing, and lack of time/space guarantee that audiences will be unable to reflect on what is really happening to them.
There are two sides to the problem here. First, the professional and creative one, in which you have the audiovisual industry adopting repressive and widespread measures to standardize the potential complexity of the filmic form. Film can be an immensely fluid and complex form of expression and communication, with the potential for an almost unlimited number of varying forms and processes. To compare this potential with the reality of the Monoform is like comparing the work of thousands of different painters to a paint-by-numbers kit. The second aspect of the problem - in my opinion the more serious one - is the disastrous impact of the standardised audiovisual form on the social and political process.
What is this impact?
For one thing, the essential differences in the wide variety of subject matters and themes covered by TV and the cinema are reduced to one common audiovisual language denominator. I believe that this has had a devastating impact on our sensibilities and sensitivities over the past few decades - confusing and deadening our capacity to distinguish between the superficial and the serious, between (for example) actual death and staged violence.
Isn’t this exactly what Punishment Park is doing?
If this film is viewed and analysed superficially, then yes, you could say that. But as I argue elsewhere, I believe there are many factors structured into the presentation of this film, which - if understood and allowed for - create a critical dialectic which not only challenges its ‘factual’ appearance, but also throws light onto many of the standard practices of today’s mass audiovisual media - for example, the use of the Monoform.
What do you do in Punishment Park that is so different? Your film is also tightly edited, isn’t it?
In 1970, when I filmed Punishment Park, I had not yet made an analysis of the problems of the Monoform. This awareness did not come until several years later. So yes, Punishment Park is certainly using its tightly edited form to hold the audience, and to that extent I agree that this film has a traditional, hierarchical relationship to the audience - there is no question about that. However, at the same time, even in this relatively early film, there are signs that I was attempting to break out of the bounds of the standard structural forms imposed by TV and the commercial cinema, and to establish other forms of relationship and awareness with the audience. The use of improvisation, set within the framework of a quasi-‘realistic’ metaphor, is certainly one aspect of the film which is already straining the Monoform to its limits. Indeed, you could say that there is already an internal dialectic in this film which works against its own form. In a 1972 open letter to the press, I wrote that “Punishment Park breaks new ground in my work. It is a fusion of two seemingly contrasting elements: realism and expressionism.” So although, at this point, I was still using the Monoform to structure this film, I was also working with certain internal elements - including its complex sound track and fractured dialogue - to break with the traditional use of ‘documentary’, and to query its sanctity and its perceived relationship to ‘objectivity’ and ‘the truth’, which we in the mass audiovisual media still like to claim we are giving the audience.
Are you saying that there is no such thing as a documentary film which can give facts to an audience?
Joe Gomez responds to this question in his book Peter Watkins, written in 1979. He notes that in a review of Punishment Park in the London Sunday Telegraph on February 13, 1972, film critic Margaret Hinxman “cannot help wondering, too, about the morality of filming a fake situation (however possible or imminent) not as realistic fiction but as instant newsreel documentary.” “Indeed, - continues Joseph Gomez - for Hinxman, there seems to be something inviolate about documentary form, and thus no concern, no matter how genuine, can ‘excuse the assumption that you can picture as fact in the style of fact what is not scrupulously fact’.”
“Documentary forms, even the newsreel, must not be viewed as sacred cows, and perhaps Hinxman should have carried her analysis a bit further. Does documentary form really allow for the objective presentation of fact? Does the mere presence of the camera alter the event? Does the cameraman merely depict his own limited perspective of the event? Does the editor shape the event? Can a newsreel contain fabrication? Can ‘the style of fact’ deal with opinion and/or speculation? Is there such a thing as ‘the style of fact’?”
I would add to what Joe Gomez writes, by querying - is there any such thing as a concrete ‘fact’ when it is represented by any act of audiovisual media? It is these issues and problematics which Punishment Park is attempting to grapple with. Including - as I think we can now see over the distance of time - with its own form.
What other elements in Punishment Park challenge the notion of ‘documentary fact’?
The film has an ambiguous narrator (me), who takes a variety of shifting positions which confront the role of the God-like narrator used in the news and in so-called informational films. Likewise with the film crew, which on the one hand fulfills the typical professional mandate to be ‘objective’ (by not helping the activists in the desert by offering them water and so on), but at the same time challenges the law officers at the end of the film in a highly subjective reaction to what is happening. Plus, of course, those of us making the film have yet another role - that of producing a film which is challenging the traditional function of the mass audiovisual media! If the audience is prepared, or ready, to consider such devices, they have to ask themselves: “Just a minute, what is going on here?” And it is here that the first doubts about the inviolability of the seeming ‘fact’ emerging on the screen appear.
In a society where genuinely critical media education was allowed to flourish, the public would be more than ready to raise such questions. The audiovisual media would have much less of a hold on us, and a film such as Punishment Park would be seen for what it is - a complex, critical social metaphor. But we don’t have such a society at present. Instead, much of media education has become highly complicitous over the past twenty years in disseminating the popular TV culture and the commercial cinema, and in marginalising nearly all alternative and critical thinking towards the role of the audiovisual media.
What kind of reaction did you get when the film first appeared?
When Punishment Park first appeared in the U.S. at the 1971 NY Film Festival, it was very heavily attacked. The leading film critic for the NY Times wrote: “Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park is a movie of such blunt, wrong-headed sincerity that you’re likely to sit through the first 10 hysterical minutes of it before realizing that it is, essentially, the wish-fulfilling dream of a masochist.” The same critic later added: “...an extravagantly paranoid view of what might happen in America within the next five years... And because all literature, including futuristic nonsense like this, represents someone’s wish-fulfilling dream, I can’t help but suspect that Watkins’ cautionary fable is really a wildly sincere desire to find his own ultimate punishment.”
Another American critic wrote: “the most offensive of the recent festival films I have seen to date... The British director... undoubtedly doesn’t realize... that he is permitted to make and show here (a film) that declares the United States a totally fascist state... His achievement, of course, is in making a 90-minute film in the course of which no one voices an original or positive thought.”
What happened in the U.K. when the film appeared?
There were several positive reactions, but the majority were negative. The Guardian: “Peter Watkins is a sincere, honest and talented filmmaker who wears his heart so obviously on his sleeve that one almost weeps for him, since there are so few romantics left.” The Sun re Punishment Park and Fortune and Men’s Eyes: “... is sincerity a virtue when the eyes of both directors are hooded in the blinkers of their own extreme sickness?... Propagandist Peter Watkins is left hopelessly adrift in his own hopeless mind.” According to The Listener: “Mr. Watkins is a clever filmmaker. The events he describes are more than likely within our lifetime. But he is his own worst enemy. There is a hysterical stridency of tone that somehow, bafflingly, destroys all conviction.” Evening Standard joined the fray: “Punishment Park is an angry allegory whose passion is too hot for its own good. Directed by Peter Watkins, a man of great talent who is exhausting himself by continually imagining there exists a Media Mafia which is out to spite him and suppress his films, it exemplifies how the artist’s own sense of persecution sometimes rubs off fatally on his subject... The film ends with the voice of the camera director... screaming shrilly: ‘You wait till you see yourselves on television.’ It is too like the petulance of the small boy who screams out: ‘You wait till I put my Big Brother on you’.”
Was this film distributed in the United States?
The Hollywood studios refused to distribute the film, for fear - as they frankly told us - of retribution from the federal authorities. We managed to find someone to release it, but either for fear of counter-reaction, or because they could find no other place that would accept to show the film, Punishment Park was opened in an obscure cinema way down in the uninhabited financial district of Manhattan. The film opened - and closed - within four days. It was suddenly pulled off, and we could never find out why. As for American television, a conference of PBS producers (in my presence) all asserted that they would never show such a dreadful film on TV. And as far as I know, in 30 years they never have.
What response have you had from the education system?
First, with regard to the United States, I want to say that in the U.S. there have been at least three film teachers, Joseph Gomez, Scott MacDonald, and Ken Nolley, who have been very supportive of my work, and used a number of my films in their teaching. As I have noted already, Joe Gomez has written a book about my work, and Scott MacDonald has written a number of articles about my films, including on his own use of Punishment Park in the classroom.
However, this has not been the general pattern, either in the U.S. or elsewhere, and my films have been almost as heavily marginalised by film and media academics around the world as they have been by the mass media themselves. This is especially true of my critical media analysis, which has been pretty well marginalised or ignored by media academics. It is for this reason that there is still so little public debate on the role of the Monoform.
Perhaps your film was seen as an attack on the United States?
Yes, I am sure this happened, both in the media and in the education system. In March 1974, at an American state college, some of the faculty became very angry following a showing of Punishment Park to students. One teacher began calling out: “The film is a distortion... you are adolescent, Mr. Watkins! Where have you been all the time? You feel such anguish. We feel so sorry for you - don’t you know that man has always behaved like this, ever since he crawled out of the cave and began using a club?” This teacher, a professor of Romantic Literature, became more and more angry as he shouted: “And what will happen? You and I will be shouting at each other, on our different sides of the room, becoming more and more violent...” Another teacher admitted that a “fantasy” of his was that Richard Nixon might seize arbitrary control of the country with the armed forces, before his senate trial. But, the teacher cried out: “I would never inflict that fantasy on others! I don’t think you should deal with the future like this, you shouldn’t talk about the future... you shouldn’t inflict others with your feelings about the future...” A little later, this teacher left the room.
With all due respect to these people, I think they were missing several rather important points. First of all, although the idea of ‘punishment parks’ is certainly a metaphor of social and political conditions in the United States, at the same time, very much of the rest of what the film is showing - and the basis for the film - was actually happening: from the assaults by a racist police force, to the massive aggression against the people of South East Asia. And it was very disturbing at the time to see Americans, especially those within the media and the education system, go into a state of complete denial about what was happening in their country.
But far more important than this, is the fact that I was not dealing uniquely with the situation in the United States when I made Punishment Park, but with the psychic condition of our contemporary society. The problem of polarization and confrontation, as well as of the repression of alternative visions of society, are not confined to the United States in the 1970s; these remain an acute problem today, all over the world. As I wrote in 1972: “Punishment Park takes place tomorrow, yesterday, or five years from now.”
What do you reply to those who say that your film can cause violence?
As for the accusation that the film Punishment Park can cause violence... This is a complex issue. As I have repeatedly written, not only violent themes and images, but violent filmic structures, such as the Monoform, can themselves create aggression and social divisiveness. I believe this completely. And Punishment Park is filmed with the structure of the Monoform. But, as I have also said, in the form and process of Punishment Park there are a number of facets to the film which work against a strictly violent and hierarchical reading of this film.
In 1979, an article on Punishment Park, written by Scott MacDonald, appeared in the American film press. I quote at length from this article on my website, but in a key passage Scott MacDonald notes: -
“The most fundamental contributor to the widespread audience dissatisfaction with Punishment Park... [in the United States in the 1970s] ...is the fact that, like so many of Watkins' films, Punishment Park loses a great deal of its effectiveness when it is presented in a standard theater situation where the audience arrives for the screening and leaves as soon as it is over. As far as Watkins is concerned, Punishment Park is first and foremost an attempt to create an on-going discussion of the issues raised in the film. It is only when viewed in this context that Punishment Park can be recognized as the fine film it is, for when a screening is followed by a discussion, a fascinating thing frequently happens. Certain specific questions are usually asked, and a certain kind of interaction begins to take place as a result of the questions. Probably the most frequent question is, "Are there really such places as punishment parks?". Generally, the questioner is fairly sure there are not, but needs to be reassured. Almost inevitably, someone else will say something like, "No, of course, there aren't"; a third person - sometimes a member of a minority group - will jump in to say, "What the hell do you mean by ‘of course’?", and a heated argument about whether America is or is not a good place to live, and why, will be underway. In other words, when the film is followed by a discussion, the audience tends to break down into exactly the polarized divisions presented in the film; if the discussion is allowed to continue, one begins to hear the arguments enacted in Punishment Park, all over again...”
Your film has convinced some people that punishment parks actually exist?
Yes. As Scott MacDonald has documented, for example, there are - or were - a number of Americans who were persuaded by the film that punishment parks actually exist. And when Danish TV showed Punishment Park, the Danish press reacted in anger against the U.S. for having such an iniquitous system, then had to retract when they realized that the film was a constructed fiction. Quite why the Danish press should have been surprised by this, I’m not sure, since they should have been aware that all film and TV is constructed, that in many senses every audiovisual act is a fiction - including the evening news.
So despite its challenging form, your film really is manipulative?
I think this is becoming a circular argument! All audiovisual acts, to one extent or another, are manipulative. The key question is the audience’s awareness of how and why this is happening As I stated earlier, in a society where critical thinking towards the mass media was not only tolerated but encouraged in the education system, it would be unlikely that Punishment Park would be seen as ‘the truth’. The film is working with that problematic. We have to try to remove the arbitrary distinctions in the roles allocated to audiovisual ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘reality’ and ‘metaphor’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’.
For example, if a filmic metaphor is used to depict a social injustice, then what is more ‘real’ to the people who are suffering that injustice - the contrived images given by the status-quo mass media which ignore said problem, or an equally contrived filmic metaphor which draws attention to the injustice which those people are experiencing?
Punishment Park raises all these questions and many more. What remains most important about Punishment Park, in my own opinion, is that the film allows young people the possibility to express themselves, freely and with force, within the framework of an important social metaphor. I have no doubt that it is for these reasons that Punishment Park has been withheld for so long, especially on TV, and not only in the United States. Television remains very afraid of the public voice. The force of the young people in Punishment Park, who openly challenge the corruption and brutality of the existing system in which we still live, combined with the film’s implicit critique of TV’s self-assumed role to use its images to convey ‘the truth’, have undoubtedly led to the 30 year marginalisation of this film.
What is the relationship of your film to today?
There are 2 million people locked up in American jails and prisons - a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country in the world. There are the brutalities of the American concentration camp at Quantanamo Bay in Cuba, and the sordid U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, as well as the recent discovery of a hitherto unknown American military prison gulag in Afghanistan, in which the inmates - Afghan prisoners of war - are sexually harassed, deprived of sleep, subjected to other various degrees of abuse, brutality and humiliation. There is the loss of civil liberties represented by the recent U.S. Patriot Act, which was passed by Congress before any representative had read it, and which allows the state to treat dissenting citizens as if they were members of al-Qaida. In Britain, the Home Office is proposing to make it an offense to protest outside homes in such a way that causes “harassment, alarm or distress to residents” - in other words, all protest in residential areas could now be treated as a criminal offence. The British government is also seeking to “suggest remedies” for websites which “include material deemed to cause concern or needless anxiety to others”... With all this, and much more happening in our world today, to what degree can Punishment Park remain dismissed as a so-called ‘paranoid fantasy’?
Do you think that if you tried to make this film again, you would find people willing to participate?
Yes, certainly! I realize that it is said that young people today are much less radical and politically active than their forebears thirty years ago, and certainly many people today appear to be hopelessly sold on consumerism, comfort and style. It is true that young people are also being systematically denuded of history, by the mass media and by the education system. And this is very dangerous. But this may only be a part of the reality, because at the same time many people are increasingly seeking alternative paths to globalisation. When I produced La Commune in Paris in 1999, I was very moved by the anger and frustration of some of the cast towards the present world system. So I am sure that if I was to make another film along the lines of Punishment Park, that yes, we would find people who would express themselves very forcefully and cogently against the capitalist world order.
This question brings me back to a central theme of my work, and to my media critique. As I have already said, I believe that many people working within the audiovisual media are very afraid of the public, afraid of any sign of outspoken popular expression - especially if it is critical of today’s system - because this could in turn threaten the very power and privilege of media professionals and the corporations they represent. This fear underlies the central role of the Monoform, which is to homogenize, and thereby to hold potentially dynamic, expanding critical tendencies in check. But I believe that one day a form of revolution will come, and that we will have a far more pluralistic society than now, including one in which the present unequal balance of power between the public and the media will be a thing of the past. Indeed, it may be that the media will be created by the public, for the public, rather than according to the hopelessly hierarchical process of ‘professionals’ and ‘audience’ which exists at this time. This revolution may not happen in my lifetime, but it will come. Those who want to aid in this process can do so by helping the public to develop media forms and practices that use the voices and the visions of the community to dissolve the existing rigid structures.
Are you saying that we don’t need media professionals any more?
I am saying that we need to be open to developing a society where they have a different role. One which includes allowing the public into their decision-making processes and practices. Where they are open to a more equal balance of power. Why not allow what we call the ‘mass media’ or ‘public broadcasting’ to actually involve the voices and visions of the public in their creation and decision-making process? If this were to happen - and I believe it will one day - you would find a substantial number of people immediately opting for alternatives to the Monoform.
So you are not a pessimist?
Abbie Hoffman, founder of the American Yippie movement, and a defendant in the Chicago Seven Trial, was found dead on April 12, 1989. His death was later recorded as suicide. He left a note reading: “It’s too late. We can’t win, they’ve gotten too powerful.” I can certainly understand the meaning and the despair behind that sad message... But at the same time, I think it’s important for us to try to draw strength from the struggle of activists like Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davies, and so many others like them, and from the capacity of people everywhere to resist.
Sometimes, when I get depressed by what is happening in the world around us... I try to remember those scenes we filmed in the desert in 1970, and the faces of the young people in Punishment Park... their commitment to another way of living... And the way they look at us.
[PHOTO OF CAST MEMBER MARY ELLEN KLEINHALL LOOKING AT CAMERA]
Peter Watkins, Vilnius, Lithuania.
ã April 2005.