Review: Punishment Park

A new arts space opened recently in a squat in Brockley. The website instructed us to email for address details and a place on the guest list. It feels rather clandestine.

We walk up an elegant residential avenue and knock at the door. Our host, Craig, shows us in and tells us the story of the building. When the United Services Club closed in 2008, a property speculator picked the building up for a song. While he waits for a buyer, he’s happy for the building to be occupied by this affable, well-educated bunch of squatters. The neighbours are supportive too: there’s nothing like a derelict, boarded-up building to make an area look grim. But Craig worries that the new government are going to criminalise what he’s doing.

The main room is an enormous high-ceilinged lounge. One wall is entirely curtained with a cinema screen, and at least ten battered sofas face it. The room smells of dog hair and incense. Along an adjacent wall the bar sells homemade quiches, pies and cocktails, and Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda plays languidly in the background.

The three people behind the bar also live here. They don’t seem to speak much English, but understand enough to make us three generously strong cocktails. A short film begins – a stop-frame animation made from cut-outs of American comic books. I’m busy remembering a time when I lived in a New Zealand commune, so don’t pay too much attention to the film. It seems to be a critique of 1950s sexual politics. We all clap at the end.

My colleagues and I are at the back of the room. The rest of the audience, strewn on the other sofas, are maybe 25-40 years old and look like they’ve been to university. It’s odd: nobody’s really talking to each other yet. Maybe we’re all waiting for the alcohol to come up.

The main feature comes on. Punishment Park is a 1971 film by British director Peter Watkins. In the film a (fictional) documentary crew follows a group of counter-culture radicals as they make their way across a 53-mile stretch of California desert, chased by fully-armed police and army officers. While the protagonists succumb to dehydration, capture and slaughter, the film intercuts footage of their trials. In the police court, the characters defend themselves, questioning the sanity of a nation built on violence, racism and injustice. It’s powerful stuff.

Towards the very end of the film there’s a technical hitch when the disc jumps backwards to a previous scene. It takes a few minutes to sort out, and when the movie restarts I’m conscious that the screening has lost its hold on the audience. As the surviving members are gunned down, people are putting on their coats and switching their phones off silent.

Which is an unfortunate end to a great night. Although 40 years old, Punishment Park is as relevant as ever. A new generation is being radicalised to fight against inequality, and older generations are remembering that the political battles of the past need to be fought again.

And for this reason, this was a perfect venue. If the film provided the fire to inspire counter-cultural action, the way the evening was organised provided a template: low-cost, collaborative, do-it-yourself activity that gives short shrift to funding bodies, licensing minefields and resource-gobbling ‘professionalism’. Last night not only gave me an entertaining night out, it gave me a new perspective on what arts organisations can achieve.