NAKED GARDENS, A Doc Days 2023 Filmmaker Conversation

Interview by Todd Savage, Journalist and Doc Days Co-founder.
Featured image by Heather Leah Kennedy.

NAKED GARDENS screened Friday, May 26, at AFS Cinema as a part of Doc Days 2023. It is the latest film from AFS-supported filmmakers Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan (PAHOKEE), who literally bared all in making their portrait of a nudist community at the Sunsport Gardens resort in Florida. Our Doc Days co-founder, Todd Savage, talked with the filmmakers about their visual inspiration and hopes for the film. This interview transcript is edited for clarity.

Watching the residents of the resort in your film, I was in awe of them, these people who are so comfortable being naked and going about their days, and I was wondering, what does that feel like to be so free and not so aware of your body?

Patrick Bresnan: We love recording communities that may not exist and may never have been documented. They just kind of pass into the ether. It’s a place that I don’t think will be there in five years because the owner will pass away. The real estate is so valuable. It’s in West Palm Beach. This film was a wonderful opportunity to record a naturist community that is — it’s a Bernie Sanders nudist resort because the owner finances it being affordable. You know, he’s not in it to make money, whereas over 90% of the nudist resorts out there are businesses. This is a place that a retiree from upstate New York bought and turned into an affordable housing family nudist resort. That was not discrimination — there are people of color, and most nudist resorts are all-white retirees. And so, in all its failings, its ideology was so interesting. It’s an ideology that’s not sustainable in a capitalist world.

It’s like you’re almost, you know, documenting a kind of lost tribe in the Amazon or something before it disappears.

Patrick: I agree.

How long did you live there?

Ivete Lucas: Six months. I was there during my pregnancy and lived the pregnancy naked. By the end of our filming, the pandemic started and the lockdown started. And I flew to Austin and had my baby.

How did you change? How did your relationship with your own body change? 

Ivete: I lived the pregnancy naked. That was really beautiful. Like, really to see my body. I also did have to use a lot of sunblock. [laughs] Because you know, with nudity and pregnancy in the sun, you can get spots and stuff. But there was a midwife and a doula there who were keeping an eye on me, helping me out when I was getting overheated or whatever. I always felt taken care of, and I had a big connection with my body as it was changing. What is really, really important — and even more for women — is we’re always, always scrutinized by what our body is doing. And when we have a child, our body changes. I kept going back to my experience being there and thinking, “Wow, those things that my brain thinks don’t matter,” you know, and I lived it. I could use that to check myself and feel better about it. It also translated into judging other people. Now when I see somebody’s weight fluctuating or changes in their body, I have so much more sympathy and empathy for them. There’s probably some stuff going on. I don’t even need to know, it’s just people are allowed to have their bodies go through different periods.

The film paints such a vivid picture of the world where your subjects live. Were there any films or visual sources that inspired your approach to the way you shot and edited the film?

Patrick: I was looking at photography to get inspired for this film. I’m a big fan of Diane Arbus. Some of her monumental photos are at nudist resorts. Another photographer we were looking at a lot was Dorothea Lange who photographed families that had moved because of the Dust Bowl and labor camps and people living in improvisational housing. We really thought of the nudist resort and the families that were there because of financial reasons. 

Ivete: Our films have been described as verité and as observational, which we don’t use because we feel like we’re much more involved than a fly on the wall. We don’t sit and observe people — we live with them. I feel that our films are an evolution of street photography. One of the films that has inspired me before I met Patrick is Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡QUE VIVA MEXICO! It’s just putting images together and having them talk to each other, and that creates new meaning. The images were like moving photographs and trying to capture a culture. I think with those influences and the desire to present the human body in a way that was free from the traditional male gaze and the sexualization of bodies, that’s what created the approach that we took with NAKED GARDENS.

Were you always interested in nudism?  How did you find this story?

Patrick: We had been working in Palm Beach County because my family lives there. We’ve been working with high school students, and we were just desperate to do something that was not as traditional. We wanted to get away from the doc mold of the social issue story.  We wanted to challenge the audience to just see the naked body. We wanted to make a film where we challenged people to even walk into the cinema. 

Ivete: We’re always trying to look for expressions of culture and realities that people create. We’re always trying to broaden and deepen the understanding of who we are as Americans and what we are as people. When we came across Sunsport, they were ready to participate in a project where they could shatter the stereotypes of what nudists were to people in the mainstream media. Once we also disrobed with them and participated in it, we realized that, actually, you know, the naked body is free. But when you’re going to bring the camera in and when you’re going to make a movie about it, you have to be extremely sensitive. There have to be rules. Our first rule was that we’re going to be naked with them. We weren’t going to point cameras at people who weren’t wearing clothes.

That must have made a huge difference. I mean, especially if you’re not people who are living there, you’re having your own experience.

Ivete: Your own experience informs the film.

What was that kind of journey for you? After the first day, did you forget you were naked and think, “I’m cool with this” and kind of forget?

Patrick: I don’t think you’re cool with it. Right away for sure. We went in there the first time, and we wore clothing, and we just felt so awkward. Because people are just by the pool, they’re happy. They are who they are, and they’re right there for you to see. There’s definitely a performance in nudism where you’re saying, “This is me, this is my body … Let’s see yours.” After breaking the ice and taking our clothes off — which was always very difficult — even though we worked naked, I mean, I’m not a nudist.

Ivete: It’s not comfortable to be naked full time. 

Patrick: You’d wear gym shorts and pull them down and take your shirt off. You’re like, “Oh man, here I go!”

Did you find yourself judging or forming opinions based on what you saw?

Patrick: When we first were there, we were judging ourselves enormously and definitely judging others. You’re trying to understand people’s intentions. Until you get to know them, there’s a mystery about them, and you assume things. And you’re almost always wrong. When we first got naked and saw other people’s bodies — and there were a number of people who were what we would consider overweight — and you judge them. By the end of making the film, we understood who they were and why they were a certain body type. And we loved them. There was no judgment. You’re going through a process of cleansing a lot of stereotypes that you have in the clothed world. You’re going through a process of accepting people for who they are. 

Ivete: In the films we make, it is about the journey of the audience, as much as it is about our journey. Especially when we work with groups or people who are stigmatized, the audience comes in with baggage. They will have to challenge themselves by meeting the people and going deep with them. One thing is to get naked and go into a sauna, and another thing is to live your life naked. If a traditional documentary person would come and ask questions, people would give them, like, the answers they’d want to hear. But if you spend enough time with people, those layers come off and the reality of why some people want to live naked — to heal things with their bodies — comes out. Then you really have to face yourself and the reasons why you’re judging people.

Our brains are imprinted with all of these fantasies and idealized versions of the human body. What do you hope that people take away from spending time seeing all of your characters and the way they live?

Ivete: There’s a trauma in looking different, you know, just people with diverse body types that are never represented. That creates anxiety and a lot of mental health issues. They think that they’re so weird. But at the end of the day, when they all come together, it’s like, “Oh, humans look like this.”