in Opinion | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

True Lies

‘And it seems to me that it’s up to all of us to try to tell the truth, to say what we know, to say what we don’t know, and recognize that we’re dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case.’ Donald Rumsfeld

in Opinion | 10 SEP 04

‘And it seems to me that it’s up to all of us to try to tell the truth, to say what we know, to say what we don’t know, and recognize that we’re dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case.’ Donald Rumsfeld
By George Pendle

You are watching a documentary film. In a tent in the American desert a group of draft evaders and anti-war militants are being tried not only for their present crimes, but for ‘future, possible acts of sabotage’ they may commit against the state. After futilely attempting to argue their case the prisoners are given a choice – they can serve a grotesquely long prison sentence or spend three days walking 53 miles across the desert, without food or water, in order to reach an American flag. For training purposes, members of the police force and National Guard will try to track them down. If they elude their pursuers and reach the flag, they will be set free; if they are captured, they will be transported to a federal prison. If they attempt to escape, or act violently, they will be shot. The camera jerkily records every hateful look, disgruntled sigh and nervous tic. One might conceivably ask: could this be happening now?

The film in question is Peter Watkins’ fictional documentary Punishment Park (1971), and while it is ostensibly set in Vietnam-era America, Watkins has insisted that it takes place ‘tomorrow, yesterday, or five years from now’. Indeed when one considers the abuse of the international legal system presently taking place at Guantánamo Bay, the prescience of the film is undeniable. Throughout his career Watkins has used newsreel techniques, non-professional actors, improvised dialogue and hand-held cameras to lend a heightened, uncompromising realism to fictional and historical events. Such an approach has, however, led to rampant hostility from both the media and his own patrons. After watching Punishment Park one critic complained about ‘the morality of filming a fake situation (however possible or imminent) not as realistic fiction but as instant newsreel documentary’. Yet this is exactly the view that Watkins has, for over 30 years, been trying to challenge in order to push his audience ‘to distance themselves from the media-cultivated myths of objectivity, reality and truth’.

For years the documentary has laboured under the yoke of verisimilitude. Indeed with the ever-increasing atmosphere of political opacity emanating, for example, from the United States government, the perception of the documentary as a source of objective truth continues to grow. This ultimately false perception has most recently been exploited by Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) which blatantly passes syllogism off as informed argument and, in so doing, apes the very methods of disinformation that it condemns. In attempting to expose government deception, Moore refuses to acknowledge that the very medium in which he works is intrinsically deceptive. Watkins, by contrast, reveals not only the injustices perpetrated against the individual by the powers that be, but also the inherent subjectivity of his own films. Watkins’ best-known film, The War Game (1966), was intended to shatter the wall of silence that he felt surrounded discussion of the effects of nuclear war. Using the form of a newsreel documentary, he reconstructed a completely fictitious event – a British Hiroshima, complete with firestorms and radiation poisoning, charred corpses and martial law. The BBC, who had commissioned the film, declared it ‘too horrific for the medium of broadcasting’. Citing the possibility of mass suicides if it was aired, they refused to broadcast it for 20 years, despite its winning an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1966.

Since then Watkins has consistently created documentary films that challenge our belief that ‘the mass audio-visual media’, to use his term, purvey objective truth. Privilege (1967) depicts another near future, in which a pop star is manipulated by the government and the Church into spreading the message of ‘fruitful conformity’ to his fans. The Gladiators (1969) imagines a time in which wars between nations are replaced by ten-man teams, fighting against each other live on television in a computer-controlled environment in order to channel the aggressive drives of the millions of television viewers who watch the games each week.

Watkins’ techniques have often been described as Brechtian, yet while his audience is constantly made aware that they are watching a fantasy, Watkins always insists on an emotional engagement with the narrative at hand. Never is this more apparent than in Punishment Park. As the documentary crew follows the prisoners running frantically across the desert, the calm voice of the interviewer (Watkins himself) becomes increasingly agitated until finally, when it is revealed that the rules have been changed so that none of the dissidents can win, it breaks int0 screaming at the duplicity of the pursuers. Ultimately, however, the interviewer is as impotent as the audience. Stuck behind the camera, he remains part of the system that has caused this to happen. The film’s final shot shows the documentary crew shame-facedly returning to interview the bloodied and beaten survivors as they are carried off to prison.

Compared to Watkins’ filmic transparency, it is hard not feel that Moore, for all his muckraking bravado, is not only hoodwinking his audience but also fooling himself. He is like the French radical in The Gladiators who, on breaking into the computer room that controls the battle zone, is told, ‘your system or someone else’s – they’re all the same’. Watkins’ documentaries are lies beautifully told, commanding us not to believe but to question. His work, to paraphrase one of the prisoners in Punishment Park, is not committed to the revolution; it’s committed to sanity.