Seen from the outside, it could be any trailer park in St. Petersburg, FL, full of folks idly chatting over beers or working on their trucks. But the 120 residents of the Florida Justice Transitions estate — the subjects of this extraordinary documentary by Swedish-Danish filmmakers Frida and Lasse Barkfors — are all convicted sex offenders, mandated by law to live in the facilities. They mostly keep to themselves, their contact with the outside world relegated to weekly shopping trips (all of which are intensely timelogged and triple-checked) and the occasional outsider who screams “baby rapers” through the gates. Some of the men and women have gone through years of intense therapy in order to deal with their crimes, many of which are genuinely heinous; others are only starting to crack through the many layers of denial they’ve constructed around themselves.
The tales they tell of how they’ve arrived at this place run the gamut from a twentysomething who was virtually entrapped by cops in a chat room to a woman who details how she was both a victim and a perpetrator of abuse — a story which is equal parts stomach-churning and heartbreaking. But their stories are being told here, and that’s what makes the Barkfors’ project so vital. Having embedded themselves in the “pervert park,” as it’s referred to by locals, for months on end, the couple are able to get these offenders to open up, and by doing so, restore their humanity in a way that does not minimize the heinousness of their acts. (Should we forget that the people we’ve spent the last 77 minutes watching singing, BBQing and talking are indeed there for a reason, their sex-offender IDs are displayed before the end credits run.)
And while the mere fact that the filmmakers are documenting the existence of this experiment in criminal communal living may suggest advocacy (ditto the disclaimer about the residents’ low recidivism rate), there’s a distinct lack of judgment going on behind the camera. They are not there to cast aspersions, preach the gospel of rehabilitation or recast these people as victims of the judicial system. The film is monumentally tough to watch at times. No one is let off the hook. They’re merely reminding us that these folks are people — highly flawed and often profoundly fucked up — and not monsters, even if many of their deeds were monstrous. In its own straightforward, no-frills-docmaking way, Pervert Park is a exercise, but not for its subjects. You will go in with preconceived notions of who sex offenders are, and how they should be treated by society. You may leave being repulsed and repelled by them. But you will walk out seeing them, for better or worse, as fellow human beings.