When the filmmakers of “Pervert Park” first showed up at Florida Justice Transitions, a St. Petersburg, Fla., trailer park inhabited exclusively by convicted sex offenders who can’t find lodging in most other parts of town, they weren’t expecting to come away with a documentary that would motivate audiences to reconsider their view of society’s most stigmatized criminals. The same could almost certainly be said for those who see the film: Most will go in with minds set about rapists and child molesters, only to find their assumptions challenged by this tough-to-watch, even-trickier-to-market pic’s daring approach and the courageous candor of its subjects.
Clearly, such a project finds itself pitched at a very select audience, limited to those free-thinking enough to listen to so-called “sexual predators,” people who’ve abused their own place in society as they describe the difficulties they now experience as outcasts after violating the fundamental trust citizens put in one another — a trust that involves respecting the intimacy boundaries of strangers and kin. These are the “baby rapers,” as one paroled sex offender puts it, pushing back against the label such criminals get in prison, where their kind are frequently abused by other inmates.
Back on the outside, the world can be equally harsh. In Florida, firm sex-predator laws stipulate that offenders cannot live within 1,000 feet of places where children regularly congregate. Once released, many cannot find employment with that designation permanently on their record; all must register their place of residence at least twice a year, so other citizens can steer clear. Such strict restrictions exist out of society’s collective fear that sex offenders will strike again, though the movie argues that recidivism is far lower for them (about 5%) than nearly all other classes of crime.
The problem, or so Scandi filmmaking couple Frida and Lasse Barkfors would have us contemplate, is that the sex-offender label applies to a wide and surprisingly varied list of crimes, ranging from flashing to producing child pornography, and the label doesn’t distinguish between a serial offender and, say, the 22-year-old seen here, who was arrested in a police sting designed to entrap men willing to consider sex with a minor (whereas, the film points out, the vast majority of such crimes are conducted within families over many years).
While everyone here takes responsibility for his or her actions, they also have an uncomfortable tendency to rationalize their crimes. Many of the offenders interviewed were themselves molested as children. The most heartbreaking of the testimonies comes from Tracy Hutchinson, a mother who, after having been raped by her father while still in the crib, spiraled into a series of unhealthy sexual relationships. In a devastating open interview, she describes how she got an abortion at age 11 and, years later, seduced her own son, who in turn molested a 3-year-old boy.
In providing room for such stories from nearly a dozen of the residents at Palace Mobile Home Park (an “adult community” operated by Florida Justice Transitions), the documentary broadens well beyond a portrait of this particular facility to address the underlying causes of these crimes and to question how society might more constructively deal with the issues, where offering counseling to abuse victims becomes as important as, if not more so than, persecuting their abusers.
In that respect, the unflinching project is different from other fearless films on the subject, such as Matthias Bittner’s “Not in My Backyard,” which focuses on sex offenders reduced to living beneath a Miami causeway because no traditional neighborhood would have them. In both cases, it took European filmmakers curious enough to examine how America deals with the issue to touch the taboo subject. Also available in an hourlong TV cut, “Pervert Park” won a special jury award at Sundance, acknowledging the film’s impact — one that demands a tough skin and an open mind.