'Pervert Park': Sundance Review
The feature debut of nonfiction filmmaking couple Frida and Lasse Barkfors looks at a trailer park in Florida that houses 120 convicted sex offenders
Registered sex offenders live together in harmony in Pervert Park, which takes its provocative title from the unpleasant nickname of the Florida Justice Transitions trailer park that houses 120 convicted lawbreakers. This challenging but refreshingly candid nonfiction feature is the debut of the talented Swedish-Danish filmmaking couple Frida and Lasse Barkfors, who have not only found a fascinating subject but who also manage to build a case against isolating sex offenders without resorting to such facile shortcuts as voiceovers or heavy editorializing. After a bow at local fest CPH:DOX and now Sundance, this should have no problems attracting the attention of other (liberal-leaning) festivals and broadcasters, with a good chance of a few theatrical pickups, though the film’s definitely more interesting for the way it handles its prickly subject than how it actually looks on the bigscreen.
Florida Justice Transitions, in St. Petersburg, Fla, was founded by Nancy Morais, the mother of a convicted sex offender who came to realize that housing was an especially big problem for the group her son now belonged to as they’re not allowed to live within 1,000 feet of any place where children frequently gather, such as schools, bus stops or even churches. A few chilling statistics, which include the fact there are half a million registered sex offenders in the U.S., open the feature, though they are balanced by more encouraging numbers at the end that seem to support the general thrust of the film, which -- what a concept! -- humanizes the wrongdoers by simply letting them tell their stories and shows how their interaction with a counselor and with each other is an extremely helpful and often powerful part of getting their lives back on track.
Pervert Park goes back and forth between direct-to-camera interviews and scenes shot at the trailer park, where the inhabitants spend their free time together or attend group therapy sessions (to avoid too much visual monotony, editors Signe Rebekka Kaufmann and Lasse Barkfors frequently allow the latter to be shown while the former are still heard on the soundtrack). The classes often consist of people talking about their past and problems in front of the others in discussions led by Don Sweeney, a hippie-ish therapist who started out counseling victims of sexual abuse but who came to realize over the years that the offenders also needed counseling but that no one was providing it.
The ending of the film shows the protagonists in screenshots of an easily available phone app that features the offenders’ names, photos, addresses and crime details and dates. Their names will remain on that list for the rest of their lives and can be looked up by anyone who wants to know their whereabouts, thus making it practically impossible for them to live anywhere in peace. One of the inhabitants finds a bag of dead rats in his laundry one day; many are called names and suspected of the behavior they’ve been arrested for in the past simply by being present somewhere and the St. Petersburg locals have given the trailer park the nickname that gives the documentary its name.
Thankfully, this kind of stigmatization, which very conspicuously denies even one-time sex offenders the possibility to better their lives in relative privacy like all other criminals are allowed to do after their release, is largely absent from the film, with the Barkfors allowing their subjects to speak at length about not only their offenses (honestly mentioned but not talked about in obsessive detail) but especially what preceded and followed their crimes, thus giving audiences a chance to see how criminally punishable acts are often not things that just randomly fall from the sky one day and how the fall-out of a sexual offense is often disproportionate. Indeed, the subjects seem to fully open up to these first-time and foreign filmmakers, which says a lot about the level of trust established by the filmmakers. Practically all the offenders here came from broken homes and have their own histories of physical or sexual abuse, which is of course not an excuse but does seem to be symptomatic and might help prevent future crimes if people in such conditions can get access to help much earlier.
Though most of the inhabitants featured here are men (straight and gay), one of the most heartbreaking stories here is that of Tracy, who was abused by her father and “other men mom dated,” and who had an abortion as a preteen without evening being made aware of the exact medical procedure she went in for. She subsequently abused a younger cousin so she could have the same feeling of empowerment that her father had when he had sex with her. She would later abuse her own 8-year-old son, after being instigated by her lecherous, bad-news boyfriend, and her son in turn abused a young child when he was in his teens. Like many of the other inhabitants, Tracy seems to be helped by talking about how she arrived at what she did and how she’s been trying to mend her ways since. She also makes some acute observations about the nature of forgiveness and the need for closure that she wish she’d had with her father and that, thankfully, she has had with her own son.
These kinds of confessional conversations are especially constructive if they can be done with either a therapist, such as Sweeney, or fellow sex offenders, since not only do they not judge but they are also very familiar with the everyday struggles of a recovering sex offender who’d like to reintegrate in society. One of the most simple but insightful moments comes when someone suggests that in the eyes of society, sex offenders "are not human and we need to humanize them". As pointed out in the film, there are 120 potential ambassadors of the offenders’ humanity at the trailer park which, to date, has had an incredible 0 percent relapse rate for sex crimes and has slowly but surely managed to convinced employers to take on sex offenders on their payroll as well (another huge difficulty for any registered sex offender wanting to reintegrate).
If audiences went in thinking they’d be allowed to simply hate on and ridicule the offenders, they might have completely changed their minds by the time they come out 75 minutes later. In the best sense of the word, the film’s an eye-opener that completely demystifies what one would think goes on in a place the neighbors all call Pervert Park.
Production companies: De Andra, Final Cut for Real, Film I Skane, SVT, DR, NRK, VG TV
Directors: Frida Barkfors, Lasse Barkfors
Producers: Frida Barkfors, Anne Koehncke
Co-producers: Joakim Strand, Axel Arno, Mette Hoffmann Meyer, Tore Tomter, Linn Aronsen
Director of photography: Lasse Barkfors
Editors: Signe Rebekka Kaufmann, Lasse Barkfors
Music: Julian Winding
Sales: DR Sales
No rating, 75 minutes