By coincidence, two of the more provocative documentaries I’ve seen this year arrive in Chicago on Friday. Pervert Park, screening for one week at Facets Cinematheque, takes viewers inside Florida Justice Transitions, a Saint Petersburg trailer park that provides temporary housing for some 120 registered sex offenders. Tickled, which opens at Music Box, chronicles the efforts of two New Zealand journalists to uncover the truth behind “competitive endurance tickling,” a new sport based in Los Angeles, despite a series of legal threats from the sponsor. Both movies explore atypical sexual proclivities, whether they’re harmless (as in Tickled) or profoundly destructive (as in Pervert Park). But on a deeper level, these are really stories about power, shame, and the law.
In Florida, adults convicted of sex crimes involving minors are prohibited from living closer than 1,000 feet to any school, park, playground, or day care center. No landlord wants a sex offender living in one of his properties, so people paroled from prison for sex crimes often can’t find a decent place to live. Florida Justice Transitions was launched in the 1990s by Nancy Morais, whose own son faced that same predicament. As portrayed in Pervert Park, the facility offers its residents not only security—which, as social outcasts, they sorely need—but also the understanding and counsel of other people who share their experience. According to an end credit, the recidivism rate for residents of the trailer park is less than 1 percent, compared to 5 percent for all sex offenders nationwide (and 77 percent for all criminals).
As the movie demonstrates, the term sex offender encompasses numerous crimes of differing severity. Jamie Turner, one of the five residents profiled in Pervert Park, says he answered a Craigslist ad for a sexual rendezvous with a 30-year-old woman, and as they texted back and forth, she offered up her underage daughter as a sex partner. The ad turned out to be bait for a police sting operation, and Turner, a seemingly mild-mannered graduate student in his early 20s, was convicted of soliciting a minor. At the opposite end of the spectrum lies Patrick Naughton, who recounts how he drove to Mexico hoping to find a prostitute and, frustrated in his search, abducted and raped a five-year-old girl.
No resident’s story is more heartrending, or does more to lay bare the cycle of abuse, than that of Tracy Hutchinson, the only woman interviewed. From age five, she alleges, she was serially raped by her father and his friends, and before long she herself was sexually abusing her cousins. Her experiences with grown men, she confesses, “caused my body to want those same feelings, and I didn’t know how to make myself feel those feelings except for to act the same thing on someone else.” Ultimately she was convicted of molesting her eight-year-old son and sentenced to eight years in prison; according to Hutchinson, her son later molested a three-year-old child, and he’s now doing time for armed robbery. As she tearfully recalls, her last words to the boy before she lost custody were to tell him she was proud of him for coming forward.
Watching all this, you may feel torn, because Hutchinson’s actions were so despicable. But just as the residents can move forward only by owning up to their crimes, Pervert Park forces viewers to acknowledge even the worst offenders as people in need of care. Instead they’re demonized, ostracized, blackballed by employers, and endlessly harassed. One resident finds a bag of dead rats in his clothes dryer. Another resident, Bill Fuery, remembers how a father once drove into the park and pointed a gun at him; Fuery refused to flinch, and after talking it through, the two men became friends. He exhorts his fellow residents to consider themselves ambassadors to the outside world: “You’ve gotta go out and let them see that you’re a human being.”
Tickled began when David Farrier, a TV journalist who covers pop culture in New Zealand, learned of a U.S. company called Jane O’Brien Media that was recruiting young, athletic men to take part in tickling videos. Participants were flown to Los Angeles for a video shoot, lodged in a swank hotel, and paid $1,500 for their services, which consisted of being strapped down onto a bed and tickled by other young, athletic men. When Farrier contacted Jane O’Brien Media in hope of writing a story, he received a letter from one Debbie J. Kuhn noting his sexual orientation, which was a matter of public record, and declaring, “Association with a homosexual journalist is not something we will embrace.” Of course, this strange response only intrigued Farrier more, and as he investigated, he learned that Jane O’Brien Media was actually run by a German company that owned some 300 domain names devoted to tickling.
When Farrier and his friend Dylan Reeve set out to make a documentary on the company, they received a cease-and-desist letter from its attorney in New York, followed by a visit from three O’Brien staffers. In a conference that Farrier recorded secretly, Kevin Clarke, the eldest and most aggressive of the three, threatens the filmmakers with a prolonged legal battle from his wealthy employer. “I’ve known a lot of rich people in my life,” says Clarke in a subsequent meeting that was also recorded clandestinely. “They don’t work by the same set of rules.” That’s putting it mildly: as Farrier and Reeve soon learn, Jane O’Brien takes a scorched-earth approach to anyone who crosses her. T.J. Gretzner, who participated in a tickling video, says that after he saw it on YouTube and asked the site to take it down, he became the target of endless harassment from Kuhn, including a letter to his employer asserting that he was a child molester.
Farrier finally hits pay dirt when he learns that Jane O’Brien and Debbie Kuhn don’t exist—the person behind the tickling videos is David P. D’Amato, the wealthy son of a prominent attorney. In 2001, D’Amato was convicted of computer fraud for launching a cyberattack against a Drexel University student who’d taken part in a tickle video produced by Terri DiSisto, another alias. Like Jane O’Brien, DiSisto ruthlessly harassed any troublemakers. Dave Starr, who helped recruit ticklers for DiSisto from 1999 to 2006, gives Farrier a bag full of hostile letters sent to his mother and a recording of a telephone robocall that threatened to expose the receiver’s relationship with the Jewish Starr, described by the caller as “hairy, horny, and hook-nosed.” Hal Karp, a former journalist who covered the story, recalls a pattern in which DiSisto cowed ticklers by promising to blanket the Internet with their videos. Reporter Deborah Scoblionkov, who chatted with DiSisto online, tells Farrier, “She was completely intoxicated with this power that she had to be so destructive against people.”
Tickled made the news this past weekend when D’Amato and Clarke crashed the movie’s premiere at the Nuart theater in Los Angeles to denounce the filmmakers. Like Nick Broomfield, director of such tabloid documentaries as Kurt & Courtney and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Farrier makes a story out of his own crusade to get the story, and the movie itself offers substantial evidence of his unethical behavior. He ambushes people on camera, records conversations without the participants’ knowledge, and includes a remark that was made off the record. On a website created to discredit Tickled, Clarke conducts an interview with one of the movie’s subjects, Jordan Schillachi, who alleges that Farrier paid him for his testimony, coached him through it, and smoked pot with him afterward. D’Amato, himself an attorney for a Long Island law firm, sued the filmmakers for defamation after the movie screened at Sundance in March.
He can afford it—according to documents obtained by Farrier, D’Amato has nearly $6 million in his checking account alone—so this story is likely to continue for some time. But it may have begun years and years ago. In the final scene Farrier contacts D’Amato’s stepmother, who paints a revealing picture of him: he was an only child, unusually close to his mother, and had no girlfriends as far as the stepmother knew. His father wanted grandchildren. The stepmother, never identified by name, remembers D’Amato as a bullied kid: the other boys taunted him, and he once got stuffed into a locker at school. That sort of humiliation never goes away, and like sexual abuse, it can sometimes generate a cycle of cruelty. D’Amato has every right to protect his privacy, but is his privacy doing him any good? You’ve gotta go out and let them see that you’re a human being. v