Shot in a documentary style, with non-actors cast partly according to their political sympathies, Punishment Park imagines a near-future where due process in America has been suspended as a response to increasing civil unrest, and the fates of political dissidents are instead determined by tribunal. Otherwise facing lengthy prison terms, the newly convicted opt for three days in Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, in which they must traverse a pitiless desert terrain to win their freedom, all the while outmaneuvering cops and National Guard members, for whom their capture is a gruesome training exercise. Watkins’s film may be a dystopian fantasy of another era, but its vision of state-sponsored brutality continues to correspond, unsettlingly, to our own. 35mm print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Punishment Park and the Role of Non-professional Actors by Peter Watkins

I am very pleased that the Film Society of Lincoln Center is showing a series of films celebrating the role of non-professional actors. This is important and very timely.

For over 40 years I have been engaged in challenging the standard-isation and self-imposed limitations of the mass audiovisual media (MAVM = the cinema and TV), and have drawn direct links between this phenomenon and many of the social, political and environmental problems plaguing our world today. In particular, I have written on the Monoform and the internal repression within the MAVM which ensures its existence, and on the marginalisation of those professionals who speak openly about this problem.  

I have also written repeatedly on the role of media educators who continue to non-critically teach and glorify both the manipulative media popular culture and the standardised language form that drives it. A particularly disquieting phenomenon is the fact that this compromised form of media teaching has spread in recent years from professional media training institutions to universities, and from there to secondary schools. In this way, regardless of whether they intend to join the professional media ranks or not, students are indoctrinated into the mythology of media ‘objectivity’, and encouraged to revel in the ‘aesthetic’ and ‘democratic’ values of the hierarchical, consumerist popular culture.

The Monoform has its place, but only as one language form among many others that could make for a potentially complex audiovisual media.  It should never be posited – as it globally is – as the one and only professional standard for presenting audiovisual material.

This problem and its global ramifications can hardly be dealt with in detail here, therefore I will move on to one aspect of this crisis, namely the role of the public, and in particular of  ‘amateur actors’ who appear in feature films or so-called ‘drama-documentaries’.  

We have become habituated to seeing members of the public appear in 10-15 second ‘ínterviews’ in news broadcasts and documentary films, at the same time as professional presenters or narrators monologue unimpeded (visibly or in voice-over) at considerable length. In another version, although non-professional actors in ‘drama-documentaries’ or feature films may speak for longer (even have a major role), for the most part they are restricted to the confines of the storyboard – a process in which they did not participate. Even more problematic, of course, is the fact that the appearance of non-professional actors usually and most often remains constrained by the Monoform.

There have of course been a good number of films, including from the Italian post-war Neo-Realist period, which, while implementing the Monoform, have allowed non-professional actors to shift the experiential dynamic away from the demands of the storyboard in varied and different ways.  When this occurs – when the ‘amateur’ is allowed a more active role in the audiovisual process – the balance can change the authoritarian professional face of the MAVM.   

Directors who have worked with non-actors include Flaherty, Visconti, De Sica, Olmi, Pontecorvo, Panahi, Loach, Brownlow, myself and many others. In other words, filming with non-professional actors (call them members of the public) goes back to the early days of the cinema. Experimental filmmakers, who work in a more liberated way with time, structure, rhythm and space, and who often involve non-actors, also make up another category of films – outside that of the commercial cinema and TV. But to what degree has work with non-actors (the public) challenged or modified the standardised language form and practices of the MAVM? Has the work with non-actors been too limited in its approach? It is this question that concerns me when it comes to the majority of standardised Monoform material which the viewing public continuously ingests.   

I do not consider my own work experimental, more a serious attempt to explore the ‘middle ground’ between the standardised MAVM and the avant-garde. I in fact used the Monoform to structure my own work until  approximately the mid-1970s.  Up to that point, I had unthinkingly applied the standard professional narrative form that was laid down by my peers in the 1960s. Indoctrination from daily doses of standard TV and commercial cinema hardly helped.  But at the same time, starting with Culloden, I was making attempts to challenge the principle of media ‘objectivity’ by using the documentary form to film staged (or reconstructed) events as though they were actually happening in front of the camera. I was, however, unaware that my otherwise use of the Monoform was essentially a contra-diction in my work.  Whether my stagings of fake ‘reality’ at the same time challenged my application of the Monoform remains for me an open question.

An awareness of alternative possibilities only happened in 1977, when I worked with students at Columbia University (New York) in analysing exactly how the Monoform was structured, and how it had become a universal media language.

Although Punishment Park can be said to fall within my “Monoform period”, the process with the ‘actors’ was not at all a conventional one. The young people representing the defendants – both in the tribunal tent, and those being pursued across the desert – were, with one exception, non-actors living in Los Angeles at the time of the filming in 1970 (at the height of Richard Nixon’s clamp-down on dissidents). They were chosen because their life experiences and political beliefs were similar to those of the people they were portraying. In fact, the word “portraying” is somewhat misleading, since in many cases the ‘actors’ were expressing their own beliefs and experiences (several had already been imprisoned because of their resistance to the Nixon era, the bombing of Cambodia, etc.). True, a significant part of the dialogue had been scripted (using extracts from the transcript of the 1969 Chicago Seven trial), but on many occasions during the filming the scripted confrontations between the defendants and the tribunal members were jettisoned, and the dialogue took an entirely improvised turn. The defendants in the desert made their own decisions as to their course of action in evading the pursuing law officers. At the end of the film, the defendants facing the tribunal decided which punishment they would accept after being condemned. During the filmed lunch breaks, the members of the tribunal created most of their own reactions to the behaviour of the defendants.

While some of the people portraying the members of the tribunal and the police were chosen because their own conservative political beliefs matched those of the people they were representing, others played characters strictly against their own type – e.g., Mark Keats, a most radical gentleman in reality, who for the purposes of the film re-enacted Judge Hoffman from the Chicago Seven trial. And while several of the law officers in the film came from the police force on the nearby USAF base at Bakersfield (California), or had been city police in different parts of the country, others had never been near a police uniform or a handgun in their lives.      

Those ‘non-actors’ who were portraying characters with beliefs diametrically opposed to their own engaged in the dynamic of the film situation as though it were reality, and spontaneously expressed their ‘in-character’ positions accordingly – emphasising how much the scenario of the film reflected the reality of the political environment in the USA at that time.

Indeed, in one scene near the end of Punishment Park, when the sheriff calls upon the ‘semi-militant’ group to surrender, and the group begin to throw rocks at the officers, the script indicated that a national guardsman open fire and kill one of the group.  But the tension was so great during the filming that the police shot the entire group, who instinctively fell to the ground as though dead. The ensuing spontaneous screaming match filmed between me and the sheriff reflected the polarity in the U.S. better than any planned ‘reality’scene that I could have devised.

The strategy of depicting in documentary form the purported ‘reality’ of a Punishment Park in the United States may have helped to puncture the myth of MAVM ‘objectivity’- certainly this was one of the aims in making this film. And hopefully the ‘modifications’ implemented by the actors suggest that it is possible to challenge the authoritarian Monoform.

But modifications in the role and the use of amateur actors are only the first of many steps needed to counter both the MAVM’s authoritarian relationship with the public at large, and the education system’s validation of this relationship.

Felletin, France
November 2017

Edited by Vida Urbonavičius