Art seldom challenges to the extent of Pervert Park, a documentary filmed in a Pinellas County mobile home park for registered sex offenders.
Pervert Park casts an unblinking eye on these residents, describing their crimes upon children, or else falling for online stings. A few suggest they could do it again.
The documentary, debuting tonight on PBS, asks viewers to empathize with them, adjusting to pariah life after prison.
"The goal was just to give these people a voice," filmmaker Frida Barkfors said by phone from Denmark, where she and collaborating husband, Lasse, live.
"Then whatever you hear as an audience, what you choose to take with you, or whatever emotion you feel, is completely up to you."
The filmmakers' daring approach to the topic earned Pervert Park a Special Jury Award for Impact at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
"Normally (the topic is) presented in a black and white perspective, very one-dimensional," she said. "We wanted to make it more complex, because that's what reality is."
"Pervert Park" is a nickname for Palace Mobile Home Park near Interstate 275 on 54th Avenue N. That's where Florida Justice Transitions, a privately operated support agency, formerly housed and monitored its clients, offering counseling and addiction therapy.
Transitions, as it's known, has since moved its housing program to Clearwater, after a dispute with the Palace park's owner that is still in litigation.
The idea for the documentary came from a Danish newspaper article, painting the community as "this parallel society, a kind of freak place" wishing to remain separated from the outside world.
"We didn't question what a sex offender was," Frida Barkfors said. "We had bought into this mainstream picture of how they are, the monster picture. When we actually came to the park, we realized there was more to tell.
"These people were trying to get actually back into society, more so than what was in the article."
That initial visit in 2010 was "an eye-opener."
"We were quite scared," said Lasse Barkfors. "We didn't know what we would walk into, what kind of people we would meet.
"When we got there, (a counselor) sat us in therapy with all of the residents, and made them tell us what they had done. It felt almost like a test, seeing if we are up for doing this."
The filmmakers were shocked and inspired, yet unable to finance even a pilot to show potential investors. But they continued to visit the Palace, where a new group of residents lived by the time 23 days of filming began in 2014.
"We had to move fast but time was really a good friend," she said. "They knew we were dedicated to the film. Once we got trust, it kind of spread, like rings on water."
Without narration or judgment, Pervert Park presents the residents in their own words, still coming to grips with their actions. Most residents are frustrated by the enduring stigma of being labeled as a sexual offender, described by one as "being set up for failure every day."
The filmmakers heard stories from people like Tracy Hutchinson, whose sexual abuse from infancy led to an abortion at age 11, promiscuity, drug addiction and eventually having sex with her 8-year-old son. A few years later, he continued the cycle by molesting a younger child.
They listened to residents like Jamie Turner, a purple-haired 20-something who answered a Craigslist ad for sex with a 30-year-old woman. She then offered her underage daughter joining, and he accepted. It was an online sting operation. Turner went to prison for one year.
Transitions president Jim Broderick said the Barkforses "did a very good job with a difficult subject." He claims to have received only positive feedback since the documentary's Sundance debut.
"The biggest thing that comes through is: We never realized that sex offenders are treated the way they are," Broderick said. "We never realized it's a life sentence, essentially, in the state of Florida."
As parents of a 4-year-old son, the filmmakers understand the reflexive fear and anger directed at pedophiles. "We used to be like that, as well," said Lasse Barkfors. They disagree with complaints that Pervert Park ignores the perspective of sexual abuse victims.
"People are forgetting, many of these residents were innocent children abused by someone who was supposed to care for them.
"There is a fine line between being a victim and becoming an abuser that we need to focus on … the healing, not the punishing.
"I'm not saying they shouldn't be punished, not at all. But in the long-term we need to focus much more on treatment and prevention than we do."
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.