PERVERT PARK screened as part of the World Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance film festival. For additional screen times, head here.
Pervert Park is a tough film and not for everyone. I never use that last phrase because I dislike it, but I feel compelled to now, as this film is a trigger warning (like whoa) for rape, sexual abuse, and sex offenders. Despite this, it is moving and challenging in all the right ways.
It highlights the lives of a handful of individuals who live in Florida Justice Transitions (dubbed “Pervert Park” by the locals–ding ding!), a trailer park founded for sex offenders that offers them a safe place to live while they are on probation. If you are all, “Boo! Sex offenders shouldn’t get safe, nice places to live!” probably just stop reading this review now.
This documentary approaches the residents as People, rather than just Sex Offenders. It’s a character study through and through; there are no judgements or calls-to-action, just “here are these people and this is what they did.” Somehow directors Frida and Lasse Barkfors were able to get the residents to open up and trust them. The interviews they give are startlingly honest and deeply upsetting. Hearing phrases like “I raped a five-year-old girl” come out of a man’s mouth will never not be upsetting. But to then get to know that individual as a “fellow human being” rather than a “monster” is conflicting and what makes Pervert Park so moving.
A common thread through the residents’ stories is that many were abused in some way or another as children and then continued the cycle as adults. Another two were entrapped through police stings via the internet, which is surprisingly infuriating as it doesn’t seem fair in some way (I’ve watched all of SVU; I know how that goes down). Someone else is simply a flasher. It’s strangely aggravating how they are all, no matter the severity of their crimes, put on the same sex offender registry and given the same ostracizing label. And how they have to pay for their own monitoring devices or risk going back to jail. And how someone’s probation officer can sabotage his chance to get a job. I think it was aggravating because I don’t want to think of sex offenders as people because they’re not, right? … Right?
Frida and Lasse Barkfors did an incredible job at never once, not even for a second, minimizing the crimes these individuals committed, while also portraying these people in a way that you couldn’t help but feel empathy toward them. That they are all well aware of their crimes and portray remorse helps, of course. Did I feel guilty about feeling that empathy? Of course. That’s why it’s so challenging to watch.
At 77 minutes (phew, any longer would be hard), the documentary is well edited and deftly weaves around the park, meeting with different individuals and learning more about them as the film progresses. The camera work is simple and straightforward, never taking away from the subjects. The Barkfors (married) spent four years putting this film together. It’s their first project together and first feature-length one, which I think deserves some props too.
Pervert Park is an important, complex documentary as it is part of a conversation we don’t have often enough regarding stigmas and sexual abuse and the legal system. If you’re able to handle it, please see it.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.