PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am

Punishment Park

Starring: Mark Keats, Ken Foreman, Jim Bohan

Director: Peter Watkins

The film: At the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, an endless stream of young men and women - all of them political dissidents, ranging from pacifists to Black Panthers - are forced to partake in a game. Over the course of three days, they are expected to cross a barren desert on foot, with the aim of reaching an American flag more than 100 miles away. Under the intense heat, they would be pursued by ruthless policemen, who see the chase as real-life practice in containing what they consider a threat to national security.

Prior to banishment, the youngsters had already faced a tribunal - a kangaroo court filled with, among others, a conservative company executive, a macho unionist and a housewife who doubles as the chair of the unabashedly jingoistic 'Silent Majority of a Unified America'. During the hearing, the handcuffed and shackled 'defendants' are shouted down, threatened with long sentences and in some cases gagged. 'We're giving a say to these young people - and they're not appreciating it,' says a tribunal member.

All this emerges out of the imagination of British filmmaker Peter Watkins, as he sets the scene in the early 1970s, with Richard Nixon leading a paranoid nation to war with North Korea and North Vietnam, with conflicts with China and the Soviet Union just an ill-advised decision away. It doesn't take an analyst, however, to see the relevance of Punishment Park in 2005: Fox TV and the Moral Right are the new tribunals, while Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib the new Bear Mountains.

Shot in documentary style (the camera crew are 'British and West German reporters' observing the proceedings) and featuring an acting cast whose real political sympathies lie close - if not exact - to their on-screen personas, Punishment Park makes striking viewing. And it's not just because Watkins toys with the boundaries of fiction and reality: Punishment Park is hyper-real, as it unravels the spiralling brutality the policemen allowed themselves to indulge in.

While the police commander (a chilling turn by John Bohan) insists that they would strive to be fair in the chase, the veneer of civility gradually fades, as his underlings grow increasingly fascist ('We'll shoot first and ask questions later,' one says, as a pack of surrendering 'participants' march to their fate; dead bodies are used as decoys to bring others within shooting range). What's more disturbing is witnessing how they get there: not because of innate barbarity on the law officers' part, but a fear and loathing that was whipped up by a corrupt regime among its denizens.

The extras: A wealth of stuff here, including a new, 30-minute introduction by Watkins, essays on audience reaction to the film, and Forgotten Faces, a short feature Watkins made in 1961 with amateur actors in the backstreets of Canterbury that recreates the Budapest uprising of 1956.