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I already posted something about Punishment Park, not a long time ago, although it seemed that this movie should belong to HETEROTOPIA IN CINEMA…
Directed by Peter Watkins in 1971, Punishment Park is filmed borrowing the documentary vocabulary in order to create an ambiguity on the reality of this story. In fact, the movie introduces a “state of emergency” decreed by Richard Nixon (inspired by the real McCarran Internal Security Act) and authorizes federal authorities to detain people who could “represent a risk for society” without referring it to the American Congress. In this regard, arrested people can choose either to spend some time in prison or to participate to Police training in Punishment Park.
Punishment Park is a remote place in the Californian desert where young dissidents have to walk for 60 miles without being recaptured by the police. The pseudo-documentary dramatizes a session which turns to human hunting after a cop is being killed. Dissidents are shot one by one.
Punishment Park is therefore an heterotopia in its extraction from the “real world” and the total abolition of law it implies, bringing human to a state of cold violence between predators and preys.
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Peter Watkins - Diary of an Unknown Soldier closeupsNine screenshots from the film The Diary of an Unknown Soldier by P. Watkins

The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959) and The Forgotten Faces (1961) are the two first films of Peter Watkins. These two short films might appear as less ambitious as The War Game (1965), Punishment Park (1970) and La Commune (1999); however, they already carry the essence of Watkins’ cinema both in their form and in their content.

The Diary of an Unknown Soldier is an internal monologue of a first world war British soldier deployed on the front in Eastern France. The spectator is a witness of his thoughts and fears before combat. Image and sound are not synchronized and the successive and fast series of shots participate to express the anguished wait of the soldier. The way the body is filmed and described in the script is remarkable as it heavily insists on the fact that war for soldiers — in opposition to high rank officers — is essentially a matter of bodies: their movement, their combination with the bullets and bombs trajectories and their relationship to the ground — in that case, the mud. The body is what the soldier is asked to supply to his or her army to accomplish the strategies thought about “from above.” In that matter, Watkins makes his soldier think the following while filming close-ups of parts of his body along with other soldiers’ (see the series of screenshots above):

That’s how I will probably die, left like a poor old rag on the battlefield. When you know this is going to happen to you, your body suddenly becomes something terribly precious to you. This flesh, soft and warm is yours; a personal belonging not to be discarded like an awful piece of meat. You find yourself thinking about this, realizing what a wonderful thing your body is, and what an awful and wrong thing it is to maltreat it.


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La Commune (de Paris, 1871) by Peter Watkins (see also an old article about Punishment Park) filmed in 1999 is the absolute reference for the NY Commune project as it addresses the question of the Paris Commune through a cinematographic work being itself a democratic construction. This film is basing its plot on a historical event and its reconstitution in order to question the contemporaneity of the class struggle. In order to do so, it limits its setting to a warehouse in the North of Paris, films the action through an anachronistic documentary crew and construct itself in very long shots during which the (mostly non-professional) actors express themselves in a contemporary language while improvising for most of it. Using this method, the film, in its totality, almost reaches 6 hours long (see the full version on youtube below).
P. Watkins pushed the democratic process of making a film to the point of hiring actors opposed to the Paris Commune to play the Parisians who flew the capital city or remained hidden during the three months of its existence. It does not forget either the important faults of the Commune, the execution of the clerical hostages, the cowardice of some members of the Central Committee (elected group of decision in all districts of Paris and from every professions), the strong lack of organizations in front of the Versailles Army, the crowd syndromes etc. This antagonism of facts reflects the antagonism in the numerous debates showed on the screen with actors who reach a very high level of passion as they have no problem identifying with their character who has a lot of similitude with their own person. In this regard, the pseudo-documentary crew go as far as asking those same actors if they would also risk their lives today if confronted to the same situation while they act the fight on the barricade (see the 31st chapter on the video).
The film was badly received when it was released on TV, even by its own producer, Arte (probably the only channel that is worth watching in France) as P.Watkins himself explains on his website. The reasons for that are probably numerous and the first one is of course the institutional form of censorship that never gave to the 1871 Commune the place in history that it deserves. However, another interesting reason for it can be seen in the very means of this film. We could think of an alternate film from a liberal filmmaker who would have the favors of the industry to gather an important budget in order to create a glorious aesthetic film that would narrate an individual (love) story within the history of the Commune (a grotesque example of this form an aesthetics can be seen in the videoclip No Church in the Wild as I wrote about earlier) . The liberal media would applause this work and through it, self-congratulate for their open-mind.
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I got the chance last week, to curate a small  cine-club session organized by Danielle Willems (see her essay for the Funambulist) who was kind enough to ask me so. I chose two movies that I was not necessarily associating but whose connection will have to be made in an upcoming article about what Deleuze calls the Power of the False (La puissance du Faux). Those two films were Punishment Park (1971) by Peter Watkins (see the previous articles about it) and  A Walk Through H. (1978) by Peter Greenaway about which I already wrote but I would like to reiterate in order to open a new category in the archives  that I will elaborate about in the coming weeks. This category concerns Maps, their subjectivity and their power. I already archived in it previous articles that are related to this topic and more will come.

I still need to research more information in order to write something about the subjectivity of maps as a mean of representation of space, but of course that is the main topic of A Walk Through H. whose narrator is so obsessed with maps that he ends up seeing them on every piece of paper that gets in his way and the film is registered in a slow process of abstractization of those maps that create new spaces rather than representing them.
The following text is what Peter Greenaway says about this film, immediately followed by thirteen of the ninety two maps painted by P.Greenaway himself that constitutes the movie. I don’t know if there has ever been an exhibition about them but I would be amazed to see one being organized :

Like most people, I suspect, I am interested in maps, cartography, plans and diagrams. The map is an extraordinary palimpsest to tell you where you have been, where you are at this present moment, and where you could be, and even in subjective tenses, where you might have been, where you could have been. It’s a total consideration in the sense of temporality as well as spatiality. I have this fascination that I often utilize for making many paintings which had maps and cartography as their basis.


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picture: The Void by R&Sie(n) 2005

In 2009, the South African film District 9 popularized a type of cinema that is interesting to question and put in relation with architecture: the docu-fiction. In order to please a broader audience, District 9  unfortunately gave up the technique in the middle of the narrative to come back to a more Hollywood-like type of movie, but the effect remains interesting in what it manages to communicate.

The two masters of this practice are French director Chris Marker (see previous article) and English director Peter Watkins (see two previous articles 1 & 2) who, in the 1960-70’s developed several movies entirely built up as docu-fictions. The War Game (1965) and Punishment Park (1971) by Peter Watkins are particularly illustrative of such a process. When the first one depicts the United Kingdom being under nuclear attack in an uprising of antagonism in the Cold War (three years after the Cuban missiles crisis), the second one introduced a police program that allows illegal dissidents to choose to participate to a Police force exercise in the middle of the desert in exchange of a lighter sentence. Once a policeman get killed, the documentary team films the vengeance of his colleagues who transform this exercise into a murderous  human hunt. Both of those films are shot to appear as documentaries; in L’Ambassade (1973), Chris Marker pushes this process even further by pretending that his film has been found in an embassy which is understood to be in Santiago (Chile) after Pinochet’s coup d’etat.
More recently this style has been explored in a pretty well built-up pseudo-documentary by Gabriel Range. Entitled, Death of a President (2006), this film uses the same language and means of American TV documentaries to in fact describes in detail the assassination of Georges Bush when he was still President of the USA.

Of course, none of those movies’ goal is to deceive their spectators by making them rationally believed that what they are seeing on the screen is reality. This is the role of the hoax, not of the docu-fiction. In fact, this type of films manages both to trigger viewers’ imagination to understand what is seen as a potential reality and to allow an association between this fictitious reality with the one they are embedded in. In other words, at the end of Punishment Park, nobody really believed that a group of political activists has been murdered by the Police in the Californian desert; nevertheless, many would understand the dangers of the Police State and might react against it.
Docu-fictions elaborate new norms that are mixed with the one already existing in order for the viewer to react both to the new, and the existing ones. Just like many science fiction narratives, by introducing an elsewhere in time (docu-fiction are somehow similar to what is known as uchronia) or in space, the latter are metaphor for the current situation. That is how, District 9 describes (fairly unsubtly) the conditions of the South African Apartheid by replacing Black people by aliens in order for everybody to understand what “otherness” really is, and how Death of a President drives an fictitious historical (nice oxymoron!)  event in order to illustrate how the state of emergency is being implemented as permanent law.


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Yesterday, I attended to Geoff Manaugh (BLDG BLOG) brilliant lecture at Pratt in which he introduced the Quarantine workshop he is currently leading in the Storefront. I am very interested by this notion of quarantine in the materialization of fear and paranoia its implies. The potentiality for each building to become a quarantine station therefore a prison seems to me as embodying perfectly an ultimate state of totalitarianism. It reminds me of Foucault’s descriptions in Discipline and Punish (see former post) in which he depicts a middle age city infected by the Plague (see also Geoff’s article on Albert Camus’ Plague) and the imprisonment of every inhabitants in their own house waiting for the health inspection which would deliver a license of free circulation in case of non-infection. What is really striking with this notion of quarantine is the precaution it implies. No matter if one is infected or not, if he is suspected to be, his circulation will be controlled.
Another example quarantine evokes to me is Peter Watkins’ movies, Punishment Park on the one hand and The War Game on the other hand. The first one depicts. in an amazing documentary imitation, the invention of a park lost in the desert used by the police to train itself, chasing in the most violent way young “voluntary” dissidents. The War Game is also a diversion of a documentary (a kind of official one) dramatizing a country (England) living in the paranoia of a nuclear attack. Through these two movies, we can observe both violent remoteness of infected citizens (the infection is not necessarily viral) and the fear being the leitmotiv of a nation and therefore its omnipresent material of this nation’s both physicality and social relationships.
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# HETEROTOPIAS IN CINEMA /// DesertDecember 16, 2010

Cinema - By: Léopold Lambert
Desert is something between an heterotopia and what I would call an atopia (a non-space). It defines itself as a territory whose limits seem to reach the infinite, which is not to say that it seems to have no limits. In fact, in the cinematographic desert, one always tries to reach the horizon as a tenacious impossible quest.
I think an appropriate author to quote here is Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (see previous post) in his beautiful humanist novel Desert:
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