Director Spotlight: Peter Watkins: Blurring the Line Between Reality and Fiction

Reality television is ubiquitous in our modern society and its mixture of scripted events and non-actors is an intoxicating mixture for much of its viewing audience. While this style is now used for mostly trite entertainment, British director Peter Watkins was using elements of "fictionalized reality" to make bold political statements and disrupt the formalist structure of the documentary style. Watkins used these experimental techniques to great effect, and on a variety of subjects to include biopics and historical events. I would like to highlight three films in his earlier work that encapsulate the evolution of his distinct aesthetic.

Culloden (1964)

Peter Watkins' first full length feature film was Culloden (1964) a piece about the Battle of Culloden in 1746 which was the last pitched battle fought on British soil. The fight was between Scottish Jacobite rebels and the British Army. The rebels were poorly outfitted and were no match for the British and subsequently slaughtered. At the time, Watkins was the director of documentaries at the BBC and was advised by his superiors to make Culloden before his provocatively themed The War Game (1965) as the material was much more approachable and it was his first outing.

Culloden presents the events of the battle in the style of cinéma vérité which eschews the formal style of film-making for a more realistic and improvised feeling. Prior to this, documentaries from the BBC were stuffy and dry, composed of "talking heads" and monotone narration. While this an excellent approach for getting information across, it doesn't do much to stir the emotions of the viewer. Watkins uses handheld camera work and focuses more on how the characters feel about the events going on around them which humanizes history for audience members who are far removed in time.

One has to suspend their disbelief because it is somewhat strange (and compelling) to see something that happened in 1700s depicted as if it were a 20th century production with camera crews and interviewers asking questions. Characters will often directly address the viewer which lends a sense of intimacy and empathy that is not possible with the normal style of documentary.

Watkins paints the Scottish rebels as men either conscripted into fighting against their will or people just trying to protect their homelands and families. They were underfed and poor often only participating because of fealty to their landowners. In some ways, this film is a microcosm of the nature of warfare in general and the way lower class citizens are exploited as cogs in a war machine that they get no benefits from. 

At the time Culloden was filmed The Vietnam War was ramping up so I'm sure parallels were most likely drawn to that engagement, but the themes of this film are just as applicable to the skirmishes of today. Culloden also serves to break down the illusion of nobility that history affords to individuals, specifically in the case of the Duke of Cumberland who after defeating the Scottish rebels systematically had his soldiers brutally murder any remaining men and their families earning the nickname of "Butcher". Watkins pulls no punches in his scathing critique of both the Duke and his soldiers (and of war).

The War Game (1965)

"Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older

And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?"

--Song for Three Soldiers

The War Game (1965) was a startling piece of work, mixing documentary style reporting with fictionalized events. It dramatizes what it would be like if  nuclear war commenced between the Soviet Union and Britain, focusing mostly in the area of Rochester. The film shows the build up to the actual war, the bombing, and ten years after the attack.

Watkins was one of the pioneers of the "docudrama" style in which events are portrayed as if they are actually happening with naturalistic acting. In The War Game, Watkins switches between interviews with experts and film reel style sequences occasionally interspersing "man on the street" Q&A segments. The juxtaposition between the optimistic musings of government officials and the horrific footage of burned people and decimated buildings serves to ironically undermine the authority figures. 

The question being asked is: how real and truthful is the media? During the nuclear scare (in 1963), the British government handed out pamphlets called Advising the Householder on Protection Against Nuclear Attack which was just an updated version of an older instructional The Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids. These pamphlets, while comforting to the general populace, would have these people incredibly under-prepared for how life after a nuclear attack would be. As the infamous saying goes: "The survivors will envy the dead." The concept of the ill-prepared average citizen is explored much more thoroughly in the 1986 animated film When the Wind Blows which features an elderly British couple following these ridiculous government instructions and suffering greatly after the bomb hits.

This film serves more as a warning than an education. The point being that the only precaution that we can take is avoid nuclear war entirely because the aftermath is horrible and unfathomable. The War Game was so disturbing (and highly scathing of the British government as well as religious institutions) that it went unseen on television until 1985, a full twenty years after its release. It did win an Academy Award in 1966 for Best Documentary Feature.

Punishment Park (1971)

"Punishment Park takes place tomorrow, yesterday, or five years from now."

--Peter Watkins

It's interesting how Watkins traveled around to different countries to make his films and managed to capture the political heartbeat of each place. Punishment Park (1971) is a snapshot of America during the turbulent time of the Vietnam War and the growing distrust much of the country had for anti-war protesters and college students. With the so-called Chicago Seven, a group of revolutionaries who were being charged by the Federal government for conspiracy/incitement to riots, and the tragic murder of students at Kent State by the Ohio Nation Guard, emotions were running high. Watkins initially had come to the US to make some documentaries, but when the project fell through he was compelled to write the script for Punishment Park after talking to young people in the local area.

The story follows a fictional alternative timeline that has President Nixon enacting a state of emergency in order to arrest political dissidents (made up of socialists, civil rights movement members, feminists, conscientious objectors, and draft-dodgers). These individuals are given sham trials and sentenced to federal prison time. They are given a choice: either serve their full sentence or spend three days in Punishment Park, a vast desert area with a huge police presence. If they can make it from the starting point in the area to an American flag stationed about sixty miles away within three days they allegedly can win their freedom. They won't have food or water and the police will be hunting them down the entire time. The police use Punishment Park as a training area for new recruits.

Watkins used non-actors for the roles and the political prisoners were all played by real-life students. The conservative judges at the tribunal were also played by individuals who shared those views. In this way, the emotions of the characters are authentic and almost all of the dialog was free-form and improvised. As per usual, Watkins has the role of the unseen narrator and reporter, and is in charge of a British film crew who is supposedly documenting what goes on in Punishment Park for a newsreel. The film alternates between lengthy philosophical discussions at the trial and the fate of the students who are trying to escape the desert.

About two-thirds into the film, Watkins does a character break when some students are shot to death in front of his crew. Up to this point, he has had the luxury of having the camera in front of him as a distancing mechanism, but the sheer amount of disregard for human life finally breaks down that barrier. Gone is his measured voice and demeanor and he is openly weeping at the needless loss of life. In this way, the audience is made to feel this sadness as well, as the illusion of the objective documentary is broken and the despair is right up in their face.

One of the most intriguing ideas put forth in this film is the futility of trying to play within the rules of a broken system. The students in Punishment Park eventually split up into three groups. The first group wants to play by the rules and make it to the flag so that they can be free. The second group wants to violently overthrow the cops and obtain freedom "legally". The third group is undecided as to what action they want to take and just loiter around theorizing on what brought them to the situation in the first place. In the end, all three groups are killed. The violent and undecided groups (after combining forces) are brutally gunned down in an altercation with the National Guard, and when the "play by the rules" group reaches the flag there are cops waiting for them and they are gunned down as well. There was never any intention of giving them their freedom, only more corruption.

--Michelle Kisner