Gorvy Lecture Theatre (Dyson Building, 1 Hester Road, Battersea, London SW11 4AN); 18.30-20.20; free, no booking required
Punishment Park (1971), by Peter Watkins
In both these films, which subvert the conventions of the documentary film form, the flag is rendered absurd…
John Smith, Flag Mountain, 2010. 8 min
A view across the border in Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus. The camera looks over the rooftops of the Greek Cypriot south to the mountains of the Turkish Republic in the north, where a display of nationalism is enhanced by filmic means. Moving between macro and micro perspectives, Flag Mountain sets dramatic spectacle against everyday life as the inhabitants of both sides of the city go about their daily business. Flag Mountain thus sits within the same absurdist tradition, descended from Dada, that Jasper Johns tapped with his Flag (1954-1955), where overly familiar iconography is re-rendered or reconfigured and treated as abstract.
John Smith was born in Walthamstow, East London in 1952 and studied film at the Royal College of Art. Initially inspired by conceptual art and the structural materialist ideas that dominated British artists’ filmmaking during his formative years, but also fascinated by the immersive power of narrative and the spoken word, he has developed an extensive body of work that subverts the perceived boundaries between documentary and fiction, representation and abstraction. Often rooted in everyday life, Smith’s meticulously crafted films rework and transform reality, playfully exploring and exposing the language of cinema.
Peter Watkins, Punishment Park, 1971, 88 min
1970. The War in Vietnam is escalating. President Nixon has decided on a secret bombing campaign of Cambodia. There is massive public protest in the United States and elsewhere. Nixon declares a state of national emergency, and – we presuppose in the film – activates the 1950 Internal Security Act (the McCarran Act), which authorizes Federal authorities, without reference to Congress, to detain persons judged to be “a risk to internal security”.
In a desert zone in southwestern California, not far from the tents where a civilian tribunal are passing sentence on Group 638, Group 637 (mostly university students) find themselves in the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, and discover the rules of the ‘game’ they are forced to undergo as part of the alternative they have chosen in lieu of confinement in a penitentiary. Group 637 have been promised liberty if they evade pursuing law enforcement officers and reach the American flag posted 53 miles away across the mountains, within three days. Meanwhile, in the tribunal tent, Group 638 – assumed guilty before tried – endeavour in vain to argue their case for resisting the war in Vietnam. While they argue, amidst harassment by the members of the tribunal, the exhausted Group 637 – dehydrated by exposure to temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit – have voted to split into three subgroups: those for a forced escape out of the Park, those who have given up, and those who are determined to reach the flag …
“I do not believe that the anti-globalisation protest will ever reach its true fruition if we leave the cinema and television and the radio in the present position we’re in.” - Peter Watkins
Peter Watkins is something of an enigma in the history of moving image production. He is celebrated as an innovator of the docudrama form, yet the socio-political elements in his work go largely undiscussed. The films he made in the 1960s are rightly lionised in the UK but his later films have, historically, been almost entirely ignored. The quote above has much to do with these omissions, even if indirectly.
Taken from a 30-minute monologue delivered direct to camera in 2001 in a communist theme park in Lithuania (his nation of residence at the time), Watkins’ words reflect a media critique developed through the course of his entire filmography and more recently expressed in the lengthy and regularly updated media statement on his website. Troubled by the passive, hierarchical, spectacle-based relationship he feels cinema or television establishes with the viewer, Watkins has, through his own work, sought to deconstruct this dynamic and explore possible alternatives. Inevitably, by engaging with the political structures of media delivery, he has frequently fallen into conflict with the very institutions that once supported him.
Watkins was born in Norbiton, Surrey, in 1935 and was quickly initiated into the cultures of war and conflict though house moves necessitated by World War Two and later national service. After education at Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, he settled in Canterbury and joined and later directed the local acting group, Playcraft. The group helped him with his early amateur films and established Watkins’ practise of working closely with actors. He liked to use everyday faces to emphasise and bring home the legacies of violent conflict.
Will Fowler, BFI ScreenOnline
Biennial film screenings are curated by Helena Bonett, Emily Richardson and Mercedes Vicente