A Statement by Peter Watkins on the Background to the Release in the U.K. of Punishment Park, 2005

By Peter Watkins

punishment-park-peter-watkins.jpgPunishment Park, 1971

Just over 40 years ago the BBC banned the showing on TV of The War Game anywhere in the world. This ban went on for 20 years. The War Game postulated the results of an attack on britain during an all-out nuclear exchange between the west and the soviet union. Since then, my work has been attacked and marginalised in the uk, both by my profession and (with several exceptions) by the press.

In late 1965, at the height of a public crisis over The War Game, the BBC increased its attempt to marginalise my name by announcing on the evening news that I had caused the actors in my earlier BBC film, Culloden, to fall in the battle scenes by hiding trip wires in the heather. This charge was made in the most public manner possible without anyone in the BBC having bothered to verify with the actors in Scotland whether this was true. So much for ‘balance and fairness’.

I left the UK and the years passed. But the marginalization continued. In the 1990s, the British Film Institute collapsed a UK lecture tour on the media crisis which I had planned for their regional theatres, claiming there was ‘insufficient interest’. In this same period, the BFI published their Encyclopedia of European Cinema, which mentions neither my name nor any of my films.

The Time Out Film Guide (UK) has used the same entry under my name for at least 20 years, referring to my work as ‘formal paranoia’. The Journey, The Freethinker and La Commune, films I have managed to produce since the 1980s, are not mentioned in the U.K. Nor are these films, with the rare exception, ever shown.

This professional reaction against my work has been replicated in Scandinavia, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. Official film, TV and education institutions and organizations have not only prevented my films from being seen, they have also reacted with silence to my critiques of the mass media. During our recent residence in Canada, the commissioner of the National Film Board made it clear his country did not need me even as a film teacher, and so we left. What does it all mean?

punishment-park-peter-watkins-2.jpgPunishment Park, 1971

My own answer to this question is that ‘the problem’ arises in the critical media analysis which underlies my films. My work attempts to challenge the so-called ‘documentary’ form – implicitly via the films themselves, explicitly in the numerous public statements I have distributed since the late 1960s. For 40 years I have been trying to help bring about a critical public debate on the role of the mass audiovisual media (MAVM), especially TV and the commercial cinema. For 40 years the MAVM have fought to prevent this debate from happening. For 40 years the MAVM have largely succeeded – including because of the complicity of many media educators who have promoted the media popular culture instead of applying a critical pedagogy in their classrooms.

For reasons too complex to analyze here, Western society has seen fit to block questions regarding the role of the mass audiovisual media. With a few exceptions, the potentially interesting medium of TV has been given the role of ensuring mass distraction and consumerism. The rest of the MAVM (including most TV documentary films and much ‘art-house cinema’) has been invested with the role of providing entertainment, ‘information’ and intellectual stimulation. Very little in these forms of the MAVM allow for widespread public debate regarding their very impact on the social and political process.

In direct relationship to this, there is little debate within the closed corridors of the media about the role of the Monoform (see www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins) or the problems caused by standardizing every aspect of film and TV production. There is little debate about the use of violent images and editing rhythms or the centralized and hierarchical relationship of the MAVM to the public and, most notably, there is no attempt to develop alternative processes which would involve the public in the creation and output of the MAVM.

Given that the MAVM have become the principal driving engine for mass consumption and the onslaught of globalization, I am persuaded that a major reason for the ongoing suppression of my work is that the MAVM are terrified that the public might become critical and demand an end to the present hegemony by TV and the commercial cinema. I believe that the MAVM are becoming aware of their direct relationship to environmental collapse, and are therefore determined to crush any possibility of a critical debate. Back in the 1960s, I made The War Game (with ‘ordinary people’ in every role) with the aim of raising public debate about media silence on the development of nuclear weapons. I have tried to implement a public process in every film I have produced since then, including La Commune (1999), which ARTE-TV, its co-producer in France, subsequently attempted to suppress. Punishment Park (produced in the U.S in 1970) once again involves ordinary people – the citizens of Los Angeles – responding to the history unfolding around them. Matt Palmer, the theatrical distributor of this film in the UK, has produced a website which highlights its tragic relevance to our society today. 

This brief statement is meant to convey the idea that the mass audiovisual media could work with and for the public, and directly involve them, in a transference of power. That the tools of the MAVM, which now use countless millions of badly needed dollars to produce masses of audiovisual rubbish to escalate consumerism, could be decentralised and used for genuine (and creative) communication, critical debate, alternative and democratic ways of pluralising society, reconnecting us with our lost history, saving our battered environment and helping exploited people all over the planet.

Peter Watkins, Vilnius, Lithuania, June 2005