Capturing the Friedmans

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 02/22/04 21:18:09

"Truths hurt"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Capturing the Friedmans confronts and confounds; this documentary messes with your head. It probes concepts like truth, memory, justice and family until you don’t know what they mean anymore.

The Friedmans are a Jewish family of five living in upscale Great Neck, a peninsular town in Long Island, New York. Father and husband Arnold, described by one participant as “a nebbish”, is a former musician turned award-winning teacher. After hours, he teaches piano and runs computer classes for high school age kids from a room at the bottom of the house. Arnold and his wife Elaine are no longer especially intimate, but they have a “gang” of three boisterous adult sons who look up to their father, with whom they share an oddball sense of humour and a close bond. As Elaine exasperatedly puts it, they revere him like a “Santa Claus messiah”.

At Thanksgiving in 1988, police raid the Friedman home and take away Arnold and his youngest son, 18 year-old Jesse. They are subsequently indicted for committing hundreds of counts of child sexual abuse. The local community - mostly wealthy, educated white professionals - is shocked and outraged. “Where did this come from?” The Friedman family is torn apart.

Director and co-producer Andrew Jarecki introduces us to the Friedmans via home movies and interviews before mentioning the crimes. But we’re instantly alerted to the spectre of tragedy by the way family members let their sentences trail off, unfinished. Still, the arrest that triggers the narrative comes as a shock. Unless you’re familiar with the case, Jarecki organises the material to continually and deliberately surprise - there are revelations about characters that you don’t anticipate, right up to the epilogue.

Jarecki treats the legal case against the Friedmans not as the sole focus of the film, but as a Pandora’s box. He ranges across related topics: the culture of hysteria surrounding sex crimes and pedophilia, fantasy and hypnosis, family dynamics, the unreliability of memory, homosexuality, and what happens when a legal investigation is based on oral testimony rather than physical evidence.

Jarecki includes interviews from a wide variety of people involved in the case, which eventually centred on allegations made by computer class students and their parents. Everyone has a different version of the truth - Jesse, Elaine, eldest son David, detectives from the Sex Crimes Unit, the Assistant District Attorney, Jesse’s lawyer, various computer students, their parents, an investigative journalist, Arnold’s brother, the Judge, even the Judge’s secretary.

No one agrees on what happened, let alone why. As told by Jarecki, the Friedman story is more a puzzle or mosaic than a straightforward expose of a shocking crime or a miscarriage of justice. What makes this approach compelling, rather than frustrating, is the footage. The Friedmans were home movie junkies, and the images date back to Arnold’s childhood. David got his first movie camera around the time of his father’s arrest, and he wasn’t shy about filming the family’s disintegration. So we see Arnold the night before he has to face prison, and Jesse agonising over how to plead in court (guilty or not guilty). Memories are tested against pictures, and after hearing family members talk about what life was like at the time, we get to see it for ourselves.

This is Jarecki’s first film, although he’s not new to the entertainment world. His previous experience includes co-writing and performing the theme song to the Felicity TV show and founding Moviefone (!), as well as making a documentary short (Swimming). He came upon the Friedman story by accident, after interviewing David for a documentary on children’s birthday party clowns in New York.

Although I found Capturing the Friedmans fascinating, I had reservations. The film suggests a gap in the investigating police’s logic and then lets it slide. Was the discovery of a stash of kiddy porn magazines the only basis for supposing the computer classes were a front for sex crimes? If so, that’s a pretty broad leap to make and I wanted Jarecki to take the implications of it further.

There is also some banal linking material, a rather odd presentation of one of the grown up student witnesses, and some questionable transitions and gaps in the material. For instance, the first website about the case I came across listed a third person arrested, seven months after Arnold and Jesse. I’m giving Jarecki the benefit of the doubt over the portrayal of Arnold’s brother - that he conceals some information about him until the epilogue to challenge a common prejudice rather than confirm it.

Editor Richard Hankin deserves credit for integrating home movie and current affairs material superbly, and the interviews taped for the film are all absorbing. At the risk of stating the obvious, the subject matter of Capturing the Friedmans is depressing as hell. It’s the constant twists and turns that make the journey so memorable. I had as little idea of what really happened when I came out of the film as I did when I came in. What’s more, my confusion made this outlandish true story seem somehow more like real life.

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