“All film and all television is constructed in many senses that every audio-visual act is an act of fiction”, as the British filmmaker Peter Watkins declared. According to him, the media does not depict reality but a version of it , a fictitious and subjective one. To debunk the myth of media neutrality, he made Punishment Park (1970), a movie that challenges the cinematic conventions at that time, or the monoform.
In 1970, amidst the escalation of the Vietnam War, the growth of the antiwar protest movement, and tensions over the injustices of race, gender, and class in the USA, British filmmaker Peter Watkins made Punishment Park, a speculative pseudo-documentary which posited an alternate near-future in which Nixon had availed himself of the rights accorded in the McCarran Act in order to silence all dissent. The movie created a controversy not only for its presentation of the the totalitarian American government, but also for the unconventional cinematography experimented by the director.
An Anti Monform Movie
According to Peter Watkins, the Monoform consists of “spatial fragmentation, repetitive time rhythms, constantly moving camera, rapid staccato editing, dense bombardment of sound, and lack of silence or reflective space”. As a result, the audience absorbs the content mindlessly, without any kind of reflection whatsoever. It is much more prone to manipulation and misinterpretation of the presented content. It is true that the movie contains some aspects of the monoform, and this is because the filmmaker developed his theory after releasing the movie; however, it challenges the imposed and dominant structure and form of the movies at that time. The very fact that Watkins mixed documenting with fiction was revolutionary at that time. The movie had to be either documentary or fiction.
This choice to combine documenting with fiction serves as a practical demonstration of Watkins’s critique to the biased way the audio-visual media depicts reality. He adds fiction to a documentary in order to remind the audience that every mediatic production, even documentaries, has a fictitious aspect. He even expresses his criticism through the voice of the student who is persecuted for her ideas and who says in the movie:
Students don’t burn buildings, that’s just a myth brought by the press.
Revolutionary Cinematic Techniques
In order to remind the audience that it is a “pseudo-documentary”, Peter Watkins uses the technique of parallelism. In fact, he goes back and forth to each group in order to prevent the audience to get indulged in the story. This is mainly exemplified in the fact that whenever the viewer gets touched with the performance of the prisoners while they are defending their point of views and enraged, the director cuts the scene and moves to another one. This serves to create a distance between the movie and the audience and make the viewer think about what he/she has watched . This practice to break the contact with the spectator was unpermitted because of the monoform. Movies which abide by the structure of the monoform seek to make the audience overwhelmed by the movie, thus to be unable to question the content.
He also challenges the standardized documentary film form. Usually documentaries had a “godlike” voice that served to orient and direct the audience to a particular aspect and thus not let it think and reflect over the content. This movie offers a new kind of narrator, “an ambiguous one” whose role was limited to give information such as the name of the person, the temperature and the distance left to reach the American flag. The role of the film crew is “ambiguous” as well. On the one hand, it remains throughout the movie objective and impartial regardless of what is happening to prisoners. For instance, they do not offer help to those prisoners who are dying and struggling in the desert. On the other hand, it chooses to interfere towards the end of the movie challenging the officer who kills an activist. One of the crew is triggered by the incident and gets enraged as a subjective reaction saying “help these people” and “ cut the cameras”. This ambiguous position of the director and the crew actually challenges the rigid and fixed position imposed by the monoform.
The film also questions and opposes the rigid and prepared scripts of the mass audio-visual media. The actors in this movie do not have a script. The director gives them an arena of freedom to the actors to improvise and express what they really think. The cast actually is not composed of professional actors. Most of them were actual activists who hold the same values and ideas they are defending in the movie, which explains their sincere and spontaneous performances. According to the director, the media “is afraid of the public voice”,the movie gives importance to the voice of young people, who were marginalized at that time, to criticize and share their point of views in a filmic metaphor of corruption.
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.
Peter Watkins’ incendiary pseudo-doc Punishment Park feels as vital today as it did back in 1971. The questions of biased media is still valid at the present time. Millions of dollars are spent to produce masses of audiovisual , which makes us wonder about the place of the audience: are we consuming mindlessly the mass media?