People, places, and stories aren’t always what you expect them to be in Pervert Park, a moving and bravely humane documentary about a self-contained community of sex offenders in St. Petersburg, Florida. As Swedish director Frida Barkfors and her Danish husband Lasse Barkfors said at the film’s premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, they were also surprised by what they found in the park.
“We read an article in a Danish magazine about 5 years ago. And the park was described as a parallel society, where they didn’t really leave the park and created jobs for themselves because they couldn’t be part of society,” said Frida Barkfors. “So we went there to film that, and it turned out to not be the case exactly,” since residents regularly work, attend school, shop, and visit friends outside the park. They also found both men and women of many ages who had been convicted and served time for a wide array of crimes – in person and online, one-time and repeat offenders, intra- and extra-familial offenses – and all the residents were deep into recovery and rehabilitation when the directors met them. “We hadn’t given much thought about what a sex offender was, because we bought into the stereotype picture that mainstream media is telling. So when we came there we were quite surprised by the whole situation, and tried to portray just what we found.”
The subjects of the film give extensive onscreen testimonies about their lives, describing both their crimes and their own troubled childhoods, which often involved brutal, cycle-generating abuse. “I cried a lot during the interviews,” Frida said. “There were different emotions connected to each different person. I was appalled and angry,” with some of the interviewees, “but I also cared for them.”
That sense of caring was crucial from the start, and helped earn the trust of the residents. “The first time we got there we spent a week with them, just sitting in therapy classes and following them around and talking. Just to get them used to us being there,” Lasse Barkfors said. “Then during three years we tried to finance [the film], based on a teaser, we stayed in contact with them and remained dedicated to telling their stories.”
“A key to gaining their trust was approaching them with no hidden agenda or labeling, because they’re so used to being labeled. So once we entered the park with this approach of just wanting to listen to them, they opened up to us,” Frida said.
Pervert Park doesn’t feature interviews with members of law enforcement, or the victims of the crimes. In addition to the strong formal decision to never leave the park during the film – everything and everyone we see takes place in its environs – the directors were determined to limit the scope of the film to this one aspect of a complex and tragic phenomenon. “We never saw this film as a journalistic film. So we decided early on that we weren’t going to include all the different perspectives. We just wanted to give a voice to the people who are normally not heard,” Frida Barkfors said.
Pervert Park opens in New York theaters this Friday, May 20. Click here for tickets and information.