When the Abusers Are Abused: 'Pervert Park' and the Punishment of Sex Offenders
Most Americans know about the "War on Drugs," but fewer people are aware of the "War on Sex Crimes." Over the last 25 years, the punishments for these transgressions have gotten harsher, especially for crimes against children, and once individuals are convicted, the crime stays with them for the rest of their lives. In many places sex offenders are prohibited from living near, or even having contact with, children. One Florida-based woman, who struggled to find a place for her son to live after he got out of jail, established a motor-home community to help offenders transition back to society.
When Swedish filmmakers Frida and Lasse Barkfors read about this community, they were inspired to make a film about the kind of parallel society within which these people were forced to live. Once they started shooting Pervert Park, however, it became a completely different film. While it doesn't celebrate the offenders, the film empathizes with them, and reveals that most of the inhabitants—especially those who weren't caught up in sting operations—had been abused themselves. While Pervert Park isn't a standard "social issue" doc, it does raise very profound questions about the balance between punishment and treatment, as well as how well we handle victims. The film airs on POV July 11 and is already inspiring much debate.
Documentary spoke with the filmmakers via email about the film and their work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Documentary: How did you come across this story? How did you go about arranging to shoot?
Frida and Lasse Barkfors: We read about Florida Justice Transitions in an article, and got interested in the parallel society that the sex offenders seemingly had made for themselves. In the article, it was described how the offenders had opened up small shops and even a hair salon in the park. The article left us with the impression that the park was a society of its own. When we first contacted Florida Justice Transitions in 2010 to do research and gain access, we expected to make a film about the parallel society that we had read about. Very quickly we met the people in the park, and by sitting with them in therapy, talking to them and getting them to open up about their situation, we learned about sex offenses and sex offenders were much more complicated than we had ever read in mainstream media. We could no longer make a film about a parallel society—that actually didn't exist; we had to portray the people behind the crimes. We remember a talk we had in the beginning with Don Sweeney, the sex offenders' weekly counselor, who said that the stigmatization of sex offenders doesn't help them—but most of all, it doesn't help their victims. That was eye-opening to us, and we wanted to share that with the viewers.
D: How much time you did you spend shooting, and how did that process work?
F&LB: We first went to the park in 2010, and we filmed the pilot. After that, we tried for a little over three years to finance the film, without succeeding fully. We decided to make the film with the little support we had and what was in our pockets. We went back to shoot the final film in early 2014. We spent 23 days shooting in the park. No breaks—we couldn't afford that!
D: At the beginning of the film, I thought about the German photographer Jacob Holdt, who made the book American Pictures. His foreignness seemed to make people open up in ways that they might not have to someone else. Was the fact that you were not Americans helpful in getting people to open up in such profound ways?
F&LB: We just listened to people in our film with an open mind. The residents in the park, all convicted sex offenders, are used to being labeled; thus, they responded generously to us when they felt that we didn't judge them. But this goes for all people, not just sex offenders. Meeting someone for the first time with skepticism won't ever make them open up; they wouldn't feel safe. But meeting people with openess and curiosity and a desire to hear their story without judgement will make them open up.
That said, maybe it helped a bit being foreigners, since neither of us—ourselves and the residents in the park—could classify each other as easily as we could if we had the same nationality. Just as it would probably help being an American filmmaker in Scandinavia.
D: As filmmakers, as hard as we try to be open when we start a project, we often have preconceived notions and ideas—some conscious and others unconscious—that shape our process. How did your perspective change over the course of the project? Did you have any conversations after a shoot in which you were becoming aware of how things were headed down a path that you did not expect?
F&LB: Pervert Park completely changed for us when we first got to the park. Before that, we had an idea of making a film about a parallel society. We didn't question what a sex offender was. We weren't supporting the registry and the long prison sentences, but that was about it. We still didn't see the persons behind the crimes. But getting to know the offenders' life stories, and talking with Don Sweeney, the therapist in the park, who is a firm believer of preventive treatment for victims before they might become abusers, challenged us. Most victims do not become abusers, but most abusers are untreated victims.
It was an emotional roller coaster that didn't leave us with one emotion when we left the park. We felt for the people in the park, and we despised their crimes. That is what we tried to convey in the final film; we didn't want the viewer to sense a strong editorial voice telling them what to feel and what to think but rather to have them make up their minds by themselves. This is not an easy matter and there is no quick fix to solve it.
D: How did the film change aesthetically as you went along?
F&LB: As the focus of the film changed, so did the visual style. As we got more interested in the human perspective, we had to go back to basics and film the everyday life in the park as it was. It was important for us to visually portray the people in the park as we would with anyone else, meaning no hard shadows or reddish skin tones. We simply wanted to treat the people with respect and an open mind, and see them without judgement, as hard as it may be. From the beginning, we had an idea of never using talking heads. But when people started opening up about their crimes, their traumas and extreme hardships in their lives, we needed to see the person who was opening up so honestly to us and the viewers.
D: Pervert Park exists because of crimes, but those crimes are deeply connected to patterns of abuse and trauma. The main therapist has some answers in terms of dealing with the trauma of the offenders—and focusing on getting help for victims. Do you think things are starting to come around to his way of thinking?
F&LB: Talking to Don Sweeney, the therapist, he would say no. He says he had a better chance of treating abusers when he was starting out 30 years ago, and that nowadays no one is interested in treating, only punishing. We, meaning society, are reacting emotionally because when it comes to children, we want to protect them. No one wants to be the one standing up to defend sex offenders because it could come across as if they didn't care about the victims. But many sex offenders are in fact untreated victims, and most sex abuse occurs within the family. If we want society to progress, we need to focus on treating today's children well. We need to start treating victims and abusers, so that families can heal. That way we could have a much better place in just a generation.
D: How have audiences reacted to the film, both in the US and abroad? I'd be curious to know if there are a few standard questions that you get at Q&As and if there are any surprising ones.
F&LB: We were nothing but surprised by the reactions in the beginning. First of all, getting in to Sundance was very unexpected to us, and being there, we anticipated the audience to be small, and very negative toward the film. But all the screenings were sold out and people were very positive. We also expected the American audience to react differently than other nationalities, but reactions have been the same all over the world. This is profoundly important to us, since we've always stated that Pervert Park is a film that happens to take place in US and with Americans, but the problem with sexual abuse is worldwide. The stigma that surrounds sex offenders is everywhere.
D: In terms of reaching audiences, what kind of distribution does the film have? And are you working with any kind of outreach partner to drive the conversation?
F&LB: Regarding the outreach, we worked closely with Save the Children and other victim organizations when Pervert Park was broadcast on public television in Denmark and Sweden. It has been broadcast on national television in many countries, and in Sweden the Police Academy uses the film in its education. In the States, POV and Cinereach are helping us with the outreach. We are aiming to collaborate with the same kind of organizations as we have before—those that are supporting victims and those that are treating abusers or youngsters with a destructive sexual behavior.
Pervert Park airs July 11 on PBS' POV.
Michael Galinsky's most recent film, Who Took Johnny, is available on Amazon and iTunes.