"I can only ask you, do you have a child? You think he’s perfect? Sure. There’s not a mother in the world who doesn’t hold that little child and thank God — it’s the most wonderful present in the whole world. But that child grows up and that child does something bad. He makes a mistake. Just one. Never to be forgiven." — Nancy Morais
Nancy Morais founded Florida Justice Transitions trailer park 20 years ago after her son, a convicted sex offender, had a hard time finding a place to live. Prison is only the beginning for sex offenders: Once they are released, they are barred from living within 1,000 feet of places children may frequent, kept under the heel of tough parole officers, demonized as outcasts by society, and given virtually no emotional support. Frida and Lasse Barkfors' documentary Pervert Park is an unflinching stroll through a neighborhood most of us would be terrified to call home, but has become a vibrant and supportive community to those who live there.
I'm not gonna lie, this movie is hard to watch. We only become acquainted with a handful of Florida Justice Transitions' 120 residents, but each backstory is more horrific than the last. The brilliance of Pervert Park is that it doesn't simply trot out the pervert parade for you to roll your eyes and clutch your pearls at for 77 minutes — that would be too easy. Instead, the film bounces from interview to interview, each more tragic and helpless than the next, revealing the innocent humanity beneath the hardened, intimidating surface. It would be impossible to come away from this film without being affected in some way, but I would also be remiss if I didn't warn you that it will make you question everything you want to believe about sex offenders.
No two tales are the same, but if there is a common thread to be found, it is that many of these sex offenders were abused as children (physically, emotionally or sexually), did not get any help, and grew up to become abusers themselves. It is no wonder, then, that Pervert Park's director issued a statement along with this film will ignite a dialogue that will break the cycle:
These are the crimes that are often too painful or uncomfortable to discuss. These are the people that no one wants to live amongst. These are the neighbors we wish away and, through sex offender laws/labeling literally and figuratively move to the outskirts of our towns and our lives. And yet there they are, 1000 feet away from our schools and our parks and playgrounds and churches. Although many of their crimes are unspeakable, what do we as a community gain from our willful silence? 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?
One of the film's opening sequences scans a room of grim faces during a group therapy session. At this point in the story, the fidgeting and crossed arms of these strangers reinforces our stereotypes of sex offenders as volatile and grim. The tense, turbulent film comes to a stop at a block party, where we see these same faces smiling, singing and joking, fully humanized. At last, they have ceased to be frightening monoliths of sexual deviance — they're just people. Pervert Park drives you around the neighborhood until you understand, as Nancy Morais did when she founded Florida Justice Transitions, that everyone deserves a chance redemption.
Pervert Park opens at IFP's Made In New York Media Center on May 20th.
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