Monday, July 18, 2016

Pervert Park (De Andra, Final Cut for Real, PBS “P.O.V.’-TV, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

It’s an indication of how far behind I’ve fallen in my journal writing and movie blog-posting that it’s taken me this long to find the time to comment on a film I saw last week: a PBS-TV documentary showing of the movie Pervert Park. Made by the husband-and-wife team of Lasse and Frida Barkfors, Pervert Park is the colloquial name — the people who live there call it that themselves — of a facility called Florida Justice Transitions. It’s a home for people who’ve been convicted of sex crimes for which they’ve been forced to register as sex offenders, which under the law in Florida, California and most other states sets severe restrictions on how far they can live from a school, a public park or any other place where children are likely to congregate. (These restrictions apply even to people whose crimes involved exclusively adult victims.) It’s basically a series of trailers on a plot of land far enough away from any of the prohibited areas, and the inmates help maintain the place and grow food for it to help cover the costs of housing them. “Although many of their crimes are unspeakable, what do we, as a community, gain from our willful silence?,” the Barkfors explain in a statement accompanying the film. “If we hope to curb the cycle and culture of sexual violence, is there value in exploring the lives of sex offenders, regardless of how heartbreaking and difficult it might be?”

Pervert Park zeroes in on the in-house therapist who tries to work with these people and get them back into a state where they could be part of society again, and a handful of the inmates who tell their stories on camera. The therapist is Don Sweeney, who since the film was made in 2013 (though the copyright date is 2014) has retired to Italy with his wife, and the inmates include Patrick Naughton, who unable to find either a long-term relationship with a woman or a prostitute when he wanted one, went to Mexico and kidnapped and raped a pre-pubescent girl; Will Fuery, Jr., who as a child was seduced by his babysitter and went on as an adult to expose himself to a teenage girl and get a long prison sentence; Tracy Hutchinson, the one woman featured on the show, who as a girl was regularly molested by her father, who insisted on restarting their sexual relationship when she was an adult with a son of her own, Dustin, and who was convicted of molesting Dustin at the behest of a man who promised to get her out of her dad’s home but only if she’d have sex with her son and let him watch; and what’s probably the most heartbreaking story of all, Jamie Turner, a young, attractive, personable man who got caught in an online sex sting in which he thought he was cruising a 30-year-old woman while the “woman” — really a police operative — kept trying to get him to confess a lascivious interest in her (nonexistent) daughter. He’s a film student who already had a masters’ degree when he was caught and was working towards a Ph.D., and one gets the impression that his only “sex crime” was thinking with his dick — and if thinking with your dick was a crime, at least three-quarters of all males would be behind bars.

The fact that the inmates the Barkfors chose to profile run the gamut from thought-criminals like Jamie (who was clearly busted based on what he was, or may have been, thinking rather than anything he actually did) to people like Patrick who really did something pretty loathsome (no matter how good he is at justifying it onscreen) itself sends a message that the “sex criminal” label encompasses a wide range of conduct and that a one-size-fits-all condemnation is neither accurate nor just. The Barkfors said their purpose in making the film was to show that even “the lowest of the low” have some positive qualities, and it makes the currently unfashionable case that the purpose of criminal justice ought to be to rehabilitate the offenders rather than simply to punish or segregate them from the rest of the population. (One man in the film rather sadly confesses that when he was arrested for molesting two boys, he was in a relationship with a woman but one that wasn’t satisfying for him because he was Gay.) One interesting thing about Pervert Park is that, as much as I’ve ridiculed the “vampire” theory of sex crime when it’s been presented on shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — the idea that the victims of molestation grow up to be molesters themselves — enough of the people interviewed in Pervert Park were themselves victimized as kids that it seems a lot more believable to me since I’ve seen this film. (At the same time that’s frequently used as an excuse to be even tougher on sex criminals in general and child molesters in particular: the argument that being molested has “destroyed their souls” and therefore we have to lock them up and keep them incarcerated to protect the public against the actions those “destroyed souls” will lead them to.) Tracy’s interview mentions that her son Dustin — the one she molested to get away from the dad who molested her — sexually assaulted a three-year-old boy when he was 13 and then at 19 was arrested for armed robbery. Though cut down by about 18 minutes from the Bankfors’ original cut (and I’d like to see the full version sometime), Pervert Park on the PBS “P.O.V.” (short for “point of view”) series is a compelling documentary and a wrenching bit of complexity ascribed to a subject most people don’t think is complex at all — “He had sex with a kid? Lock him up and throw the key away!”