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Under the bridge (2010)
 sexual offenders in the US

ARTE Reportage


An ARTE reportage about the acquaintance of sexual offenders in the US, who have to live underneath a bridge in Miami after serving their imprisonment.

by Sebastian Kuhn & Wolfgang Schoen








Travel log from Sebastian Kuhn:

It is early November in Miami, Florida. 9 p.m, and the thermometer still shows 77 degrees Fahrenheit. You could call it a tepid evening. I slow down in the middle of the six-lane interstate 195 and turn onto a grass strip trough a gap in the guard rail. That's where I’m supposed to wait. It's a pitch-black night. Somewhere under the Julia Tuttle Causeway Bridge is a camp with Sex offenders from Miami and the surrounding areas. “Sex offenders”: This word creates pre-cut images in my mind. Rape, child abuse, paedophilia. I have to admit that my stomach is feeling queasy. I have no idea what to expect, how I should behave. So I enter the lion's den of my prejudices.

 

I’m here to meet Kevin Morales. He is one of the 50 men, who live under the bridge. I am here to produce a reportage for ARTE about their situation and thought a lot about how to approach these men – sex offenders – winning their trust. Throughout my research I found an organisation – the only one that wants to help the men under the bridge: The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). They helped me to contact Kevin. On the phone he was outspoken and considerate. I should wait by the guard rail at 9 p.m to get a first impression of the camp.

 

Here I am, next to my rental car. My heart is in my mouth and I try to see Kevin in the half-light. A bizarre situation, I think. Then he appears in the thicket. A friendly smile, strong handshake, open and kind eyes – he seems to be open-minded.

 

We drive the last meters to the camp in his truck. I can leave my car here, he says with his appealing smile, nobody dares to go here anyway – you know? After a few meters I already see tents. Reminds me of a camp site in the Taunus, I think to myself. A pretty heavy wind is blowing over the headland and whips high waves onto the coast. The bridge is located in the middle of the dock of Miami. We cross some men, Kevin greets in Spanish. We get out of the car and walk over to one of the tents. Two men are sitting there who start to discuss with Kevin immediately – again in Spanish. They glance at the stranger on Kevin's side without ease. From their gesture I assume that they fray about me. The situation seems to be serious. After all, I was right. I knew that it is going to be difficult.

 

For a brief moment I get the feeling that the party is over any second now because they look anything but amused. However Kevin has this appealing smile again, including his friends. Sure – the unsealed american smile I know quite well from my year in Texas. My prejudices! Kevin lays his arm around my shoulder. A mixture of English and Spanish follows: ”This is Sebastian from Germany, he is a journalist and wants to film a reportage about our situation here. He is staying for a couple of days, just for your information … is that okay with you?” They offer me a spot in their middle and hand me a coffee. Is this clean water? I don't think so. Then I realise that their behaviour isn't directed against me: the entire wrath about the offices, politicians and the whole society is being unloaded right now. It's a well-known situation for Kevin, he wants to stick to facts, but participates passionately in the discussion. What is being beaten down right here infront of me in a couple of minutes with great gestures has got a long history.

 

Almost four years ago a law was introduced in Miami, that doesn't allow convicted sex offenders to live closer than 2500ft to schools, kindergartens or other places, where children congregate. Houses and apartments in Miami are expensive. Even the very little accommodation options outside of the restriction areas are unaffordable for a criminal who has just been released from jail or prison. The only place in a secure distance to kids is under the Julia Tuttle Causeway Bridge. So it happened that the offices didn't bother to house the men in apartments. They were pushed off here by court order. Kevin wants to show me more. He walks with me under the Julia Tuttle Causeway Bridge which crosses the bay. As we go, he tells me about the beginning of the complicated law situation, the ignorant politicians and above all the people that have to live under these circumstances. By now the impressions overwhelm me. You can not treat humans like that – not even sex offenders. Kevin notices that and answers with a grin: ”You haven't seen a thing so far!”

 

As we approach the bridge, Kevin draws my attention to the terrific view on the skyline of Miami: ”Our one-million-dollar view – all for nothing. There are people who would pay a fortune for such an address”. With a mixture of irony and thoughtfulness the tour goes on.

 

Under the bridge the stench of feces immediately reaches my nose. Accompanied by the loud staccato of the cars driving over the bridge. A vast number of cats roam around – a counteraction of the residents against the rat plague. ”Where the scum of the society lives, there are also rats, of course – you know?” Kevin starts to show me the whole unspeakable dimension of a life underneath a bridge. Life?

 

Everywhere shapes appear in the dark, hand shakes here, quick hugs there. Nobody seems to be especially enthusiastic about the German journalist, but there is also no direct refusal.

 

Kevin shows me the trailer in which the only woman of the camp site lives. And the needy cobbled huts. One shed is a bit bigger – they call it the “row house”. Three privileged men live here, says Kevin: “Hispanics, just like myself, pioneers. They arrived with me in 2006.” The rest of the camp consists of tents.

 

On the concrete hill, directly under the road, there is another dozen of tents. Kevin tells me that a newbie is housed here for two weeks. He wants to say hello. Therefore we have to take the “stairways to heaven”, a provisionally hammered wooden stairway, up to the “first floor”.

 

From up here, I get an overview of the whole scenario for the first time. The look, combined with the stench and the noise is percussive. Tent on tent, hut on hut. What astounds me: there is no running water, no electricity, no toilets. Only a standby set providing electricity for the low light from a couple of light bulbs, a TV and an age-old Hi-Fi which continuously plays Julio Iglesias. A human is supposed to live here? To me it seems to be an indescribable nightmare.

 

As I let this unbelievable scenery sink in, Kevin already stands by the tent of the newbie. First, he doesn't want to tell me his real name. He seems to be intimidated and disturbed. In any event, abrasive. For our reportage we call him Armando. He has been under the bridge for 14 days now. Kevin gives him a survival guide, code of behaviour, tries to motivate him. But Armando is angry.

 

Armando, just like all the other people here, is a convicted sex offender who misdemeaned on children or chatted with “teenagers” in the internet. Yes, I am of the opinion that these men have destroyed the lives of others. Yes, they had such a deep impact on the lives of their victims that many of them will never fully recover. Despite my deepest disgust for such crimes I always ask myself if a human being, no matter what injustice they have done, deserves to live a life like that.

The more so as the current law simply doesn't make any sense. It is enforced during the night when the children, who should be protected from these men and women, sleep. The men under the bridge have to be here from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. A GPS-tracking system transmits every single move to the police authorities in Miami. During the day they are allowed to work, in case they they find a job. Re-socialising programs – negative. Pushed off to the worst dump hole in Miami.

 

After a few days Armando starts to trust us. In me he sees an interested listener as well as a vehement advocate against sexual criminal offences of any kind. Maybe this has impressed him. Suddenly we are allowed to document his everyday life in the tiny tent. „Personal care and laundry washing“ from buckets, full with the mud water of the dock. Suddenly he shares his innermost feelings - and starts to narrate. Including the story of the abuse of his 8-year-old niece. He was drunk and stoned, he says. He cannot remember the events by no stretch of his imagination. After so many days with Armando under the bridge I have the feeling that I want to believe him, however my scepticism and my loathing against this kind of crime remains.

 

The story of the men and the woman under the bridge of Julia Tuttle Causeway has moved me deeply. Still, after being home again for weeks, their story won't get out of my mind.

 

Armando got a mobile phone from his brother. Just in case. Every once in a while a phone rings under the bridge in the dock of Miami. The caller is from Germany.

 
 




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