Directed by Frida and Lasse Barkfors
Opens May 20 at the Made in NY Media Center
For degree of difficulty—as a social problem, a filmmaking subject, and a test of the viewer’s emotional equilibrium—it’s hard to beat Pervert Park, the Danish filmmakers Lasse and Frida Barkfors’ portrait of Florida Justice Transitions, a St. Petersburg community home to 120 registered sex offenders in the process of reintegrating into a society that despises them.
The trailer park setting is introduced at night, in a sequence of neo-noirish establishing shots of a humid subtropical night illuminated with unjoined orbs of artificial light; the thick, edgy atmosphere never quite boils off as the film goes about the more prosaic documentary business of interviews and observation. (The filmmakers worked on the film for four years, and their groundwork is evident in the way their subjects, even in the background, never seem to shy away from the camera, despite having every reason in the world to do so.) We see the inhabitants, permanent employees and (hopefully) temporary residents, as they go about their days: doing maintenance work, taking distance classes, feeding pets, and holding barbecues. The time-killing hum of TVs at the edge of the frame, the mostly blank walls, the oversized t-shirts triangulate the park’s residents as the familiar kind of single adult men who often struggle to resocialize themselves—more obviously troubled variations on the widowers and divorcés who allow themselves to drift away from their connections to society.
Almost everyone in Florida Justice Transitions is, indeed, a man, though the one female offender we get to know shares what is among the most devastating stories I’ve ever been challenged to respond to, in fiction or nonfiction film. Other stories of abuse, and its consequences, are distinguished more by the immediacy they take on in a film whose camera inserts itself into the fabric of everyday life (as opposed to in a well-intentioned magazine article you skimmed after clicking a link on someone else’s Facebook page). We hear of casual verbal abuse from local residents; of state-sanctioned “therapy” involving indefinite detention and electro-shock aversion conditioning; and of Florida’s sex offender registry app, which enables residents to track the park’s residents on their smartphones. (America’s probably well-intentioned, profoundly invasive sex-offender monitoring laws lead to the film’s one moment of real comedy, when a recently released exhibitionist complains that his probation officer is calling his boss to tell him he masturbated in front of little girls, when he didn’t do that at all, he’s a flasher.) Group therapy sessions are led by a seasoned if Deadhead-haired counselor whose simple explanations for unaccountable behavior (sex is like a valve for releasing tension and anger, or finding validation) are sometimes received as Olympian bolts of insight by profoundly confused and damaged people.
The film’s reformist intentions are largely implicit rather than explicit, present in the film’s structure and material rather than via any political propositions. The main subjects tell their life stories in chronological order, their backstories unfurling across the film, and we come to know them first as victims of abuse (or, sometimes, of acute psychological issues, or actual entrapment). Only once a baseline of pity is established, do we come to know them, quite unguardedly, as perpetrators themselves.
Fiction, from Lang’s M to Broadchurch, as well as progressive reporting, has prepared us to be sympathetic to pedophiles—who, when we’re feeling abstractly charitable, “can’t help it,” and are frequently, objectively, themselves victims of abuse who bear the worst of society’s mobbish potential—so the Barkfors’ approach is less “brave” than risky for the trust it places in the narratives of people whose crimes are built on an edifice of rationalization within themselves, and manipulation of others. In Pervert Park, that trust seems to pay off, in the evidence we get of the ways, ritualized and instinctual, that the residents of Florida Justice Transitions express guilt and work towards self-knowledge: a young man, whose body seems to shake throughout the movie with knowledge of the heinous act he’s committed, tries to reason out the strategies society should take to protect itself from people like him; one longtime resident speaks up in a counseling session to challenge a newcomer’s too-pat explanation.
Florida Justice Transitions’ counselor, who speaks of the lack of therapeutic support for victims and perpetrators alike once an abuse case becomes a criminal justice issue, puts the social and legislative strategy for sex offenders in pragmatic terms, weighing the punitive demands of moral outrage against damages avoided by genuine rehabilitation. For as intense an experience as it is, Pervert Park makes it easier to see things clearly.