Filmmakers get naked at Palm Beach County nudist resort to make a revealing documentary
Updated: Apr 27
FILMMAKERS IVETE LUCAS and Patrick Bresnan wore clothes the first day they visited Sunsport Gardens Family Naturist Resort in Loxahatchee, the subject of their latest documentary, Naked Gardens.
“We felt incredibly awkward,’’ Bresnan recalled. “We felt like we were wrecking the vibe.’’
A naked truth revealed itself that day in 2019: If the co-directors intended to make a documentary about life at the Palm Beach County nudist resort — a process that would require embedding themselves with the naturists for parts of six months — they’d need to adopt the local fashion code.
“We took our clothes off to make this film. We would be insane not to,” Lucas said the other night at a screening hosted by the Subculture Film Festival at The Peach arts collective in West Palm Beach.
Lucas, who lives with Bresnan in North Carolina, was three months pregnant when filming started in October 2019. “Initially I did not take my clothes off fully and then I did,’’ she said, adding (without meaning to be funny) that she “wore a ton of sunblock.”
Overcoming their inhibitions and filming in the buff helped the movie-making couple earn the trust of the film’s stars, 10 resort residents who otherwise might have recoiled at the daily presence of clothed strangers with cameras and boom mikes.
The resulting film is a candid 90-minute “portrait of rebellious retirees, LGBTQ loners, exiles from conservative America and families with young children, all of whom have decided to make this nudist resort their home,’’ according to one Naked Gardens synopsis.
The constant full-on nudity can make Naked Gardens seem like a “voyeuristic hangout with an array of, ahem, unglamorous nudists,’’ as The Village Voice put it.
But the cinema verite film, unlike other documentaries about nudist resorts, is much more than a cornucopia of bare skin. It touches on the housing crisis, education, economic inequity and the uncertain future of Sunsport Gardens itself while offering portraits of residents who enjoy a lifestyle at odds with society norms.
“The film is really a love letter to Diane Arbus,” Bresnan said, referring to the celebrated photographer who went au naturale while documenting nudist camps in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 1960s. “I found her photographs at nudist resorts very compelling. I wanted to expand on her work on nudism and naturism.”
While the film has won a handful of festival awards, one critic with plenty of skin in the game, Sunsport Gardens owner Morley Schloss — one of the main stars of the film — gives Naked Gardens mixed reviews.
“Thumbs up as far as portraying how beautiful (the lush rural setting of) Sunsport is. Thumbs down as far as its representation of the community,’’ said Schloss, 81, who was not invited to the West Palm Beach screening. “I think it gave a very poor representation of the people in the community.’’
Naked Gardens follows Schloss and nine other residents as they prepare to host the annual Mid-Winter Naturist Festival, first held in 1988 and the longest-running nudist festival in one location.
Sunsport Gardens, first opened in 1965 on 40 acres of an old tomato farm west of Royal Palm Beach (which was incorporated in 1959), has about 60 full-time residents and another 70 or so seasonal residents. More than half agreed to participate in the film, Bresnan said.
Naked and completely unafraid, they are shown relaxing in the pool and on hammocks, playing tennis and riding bicycles, debating the resort’s demographics at a community meeting and dancing around a drum-circle fire on a Friday night. One man is shown operating a circular saw in a carpenter’s shop.
“We came in wanting to embody nudism and understand it in a deeper way than just interviewing people and having people talk,’’ Lucas said. “We presented the human body matter of factly, with no pre-selection of perfect specimens, no embellishment, no posing or close-ups on body parts.”
The film also includes scenes of marijuana smoking, a couple arguing and an 11-year-old girl struggling with a basic math equation while being homeschooled. Those scenes don’t offer an accurate representation of Sunsport Gardens, Schloss said, adding that five of the main protagonists in Naked Gardens no longer live there after leaving or being evicted “for a variety of reasons.’’
“If I watched that movie, I wouldn't want to be part of that community,’’ said Schloss, a Harvard graduate and former teacher who first got naked in public at the Woodstock rock festival in 1969.
“For dramatic purposes or some reason, (the directors) picked out the most dysfunctional people,'' he said. "It looks like it's a kind of seedy, low-class community, and it certainly isn't.’’
“Maybe I'm more critical than other people,’’ he said, “but I know the situation and I know the people involved. If you came out, I think you'd get a different impression (than the film offers).’’
Bresnan said Schloss never shared any concerns with the directors when he joined them at a private screening of Naked Gardens in Wellington last year.
“He loved it,’’ Bresnan recalled.
Also appealing to the directors was the film’s setting — a rustic resort with unpaved roads and some dated living facilities that have seen better days, much like the physical bodies of Sunsport Gardens residents, who range from seniors to toddlers.
“It's just one of those places where there's no pressure for everything to be perfect,’’ Bresnan said.
Lucas hopes Naked Gardens shatters stereotypes about nudity on film and provokes viewers to reconsider how they feel about their own bodies.
“I had never seen nudity on screen that was not sexualized and the bodies were not preselected,” she said.
“I really wanted to make cinematic imagery that included all bodies in a matter of fact way and, as a woman, removing the male gaze and reframing and redefining how we see our bodies.’’
For Bresnan, whose father lives in West Palm Beach, inspiration for the film came from a 2015 story about Sunsport in The Palm Beach Post. “Morley was on the cover, laughing in a chair, and there was a naked lady next to him. I was like, ‘Wow, I need to go see this place,’’’ he said.
While juggling other projects, Bresnan started an email exchange with Schloss. Initial plans called for a documentary about the annual Mid-Winter Naturist Festival, but once Bresnan and Lucas visited Schloss for the first time in June 2019, they knew they needed to make a broader film about the resort’s residents, not just the festival.
Lucas and Bresnan rented a condo outside Sunsport Gardens and shot from October to the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. They were joined by a third crew member, sound man and digital-imaging technician Kevin Contento, who wore light clothes.
It took a while for some residents to get used to the crew. And it took some time for Lucas and Bresnan to get comfortable working while naked — a decision for which Schloss praised the directors.
“I can’t say I was even comfortable being naked in the locker room at a gym before going to Sunsport,’’ Bresnan said.
“Neither of us want to go into a space where people are expecting a high level of privacy and be kind of upsetting that privacy by holding cameras and then on top of that have clothes on,” he said.
The trust the directors established with the resort's residents resulted in an honest documentary, Bresnan said.
“We showed what we saw,’’ he said.
“The nudists asked us to agree not to blur or place black bars over areas of their bodies considered private,” Lucas said.
“Just as the nudists have pushed the boundaries of what is socially acceptable, we intend to push film and media outlets and audiences to reconsider why nudity is deemed offensive and worth censoring,’’ she said.
Made for just under $300,000, Naked Gardens made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last June. It has been well-received at more than a dozen screenings and festivals, more so at showings in Europe (Amsterdam, Poland and England) than the United States, Lucas and Bresnan said.
Naked Gardens won Best Feature Documentary at the Tallahassee Film Festival and the grand jury award at the New Hampshire Film Festival last fall. At the San Francisco Indie Film Festival in February, it won the Special Prize for Excellence in American Profiles.
It will make its theatrical debut this weekend, April 28-29, in Los Angeles.
But getting the film to a wider audience has been, and will continue to be, a challenge.
“On the festival circuit, people are scared shitless of the film,’’ Bresnan said. “If they program it, (they wonder) are they going to get yelled at? Will they lose sponsorship? So it's a very hard film to program.’’
The Champs-Elysées Film Festival in Paris rejected Naked Gardens because, according to Bresnan, the director said was “there aren’t any attractive people in it.’’
Meanwhile, in the relatively short three-year window from the time filming started to the film’s release, the political climate in Florida has changed. The LGBTQ community and drag performers have been among the targets of Florida laws and attacks by conservatives fearing the “indoctrination” of children.
“We never had fear that the film would be outlawed or banned,’’ Bresnan said. “Our big concern was how to film minors in a way that was respectful of their bodies and respectful to the wishes of their parents if they consented to have them in the film. That was our main concern.’’
Schloss said he’s not worried that Naked Gardens might offer unwanted scrutiny from conservative interests. “We are a family naturist resort, as our name says,’’ he said.
On April 21, three Sunsport residents featured in the film — Aaron Frost, Dee Dee Concepcion and her daughter, Serenity — participated in the Palm Beach County premier of Naked Gardens at The Peach. They kept their clothes on during the movie.
But afterward, when they took the stage with Lucas and Bresnan to answer questions from an audience of about 30 people, Dee Dee Concepcion and Frost stripped to their birthday suits. (Serenity kept her clothes on.)
“Getting naked physically is … a way of showing, OK, I'm trying to be genuine, I'm trying to be authentic,’’ Frost said. “I'm trying not to hide anything. I'm trying not to put on anything that is fake, I'm trying not to cut off anything that's real. I'm trying to be a full genuine natural human being and do my best as a way of connecting with myself, with nature and with my fellow human beings.’’
He continued, “We've lived this way for hundreds of thousands of years. Just a few thousand years ago religions started telling everyone they needed to be ashamed of their body and it was sinful and all this stuff. That was really convenient to load people up with guilt that made them very susceptible to the control of religion. I think it's so sad our entire society went that way and I’m so proud to be part of this community. …’’
As the panel session wound down, visitors were invited to attend Sunsport’s drum circle, held the first Friday night of the month.
“Not everyone is naked,'' Frost said, "and you don’t have to get naked.''
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.