CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS(director/writer: Andrew Jarecki; cinematographer: Adolfo Doring; editor: Richard Hankin; music: Andrea Morricone; cast: Arnold Friedman (Father), Elaine Friedman (Mother), David Friedman (Eldest Son), Seth (Middle Son), Jesse (Youngest Son), Howard Friedman (Arnold’s Younger Brother), John McDermott (Postal Inspector), Peter Panaro (Jesse’s Lawyer), Abbey Boklan (Judge), Frances Galasso (Detective), Debbie Nathan (Investigative Journalist); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Andrew Jarecki/ Peter Bove/Marc Smerling; Magnolia Pictures; 2003)
“A rare Errol Morris-like documentary that takes us further into studying such a dysfunctional family than probably ever before.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Andrew Jarecki at first attempted to make a documentary about birthday clowns in the New York area and interviewed “Silly Billy” the clown name used by David Friedman, the #1 children’s birthday clown in New York. But soon after Jarecki learned of his father’s well-publicized arrest he switched film topics and assured David he’ll make a fair film about his family–which he did. He also gained David’s complete trust, which gave this film its brutally unique flavor of watching a family bickering and slowly coming apart. The filmmaker lucked out when David let him use his private videotapes, as after his father’s arrest in front of full media coverage he recorded the grief the family was going through so he wouldn’t have to remember it.
It’s a troubling documentary set in the north shore of Long Island, N.Y., in upscale Great Neck, that plays like an episode in ‘reality TV’ in which the viewer is tantamount to being a voyeur. It features an intimate portrayal of the upper-middle-class Friedman family as it learns the truth about their patriarch, and then learns that it doesn’t know the whole truth as even the closest family members only react to so-called facts by the way they were conditioned.
The portrait of Arnold Friedman as a monster pedophile is contrasted with him as a good citizen and family man. He was a graduate of Columbia University who turned down a lucrative career as an engineer and became known in the 40s and 50s as Arnito Rey, leading a Latin band because it was a fun thing to do. Friedman retired as an honored and distinguished science high school teacher with no reported incidents, and also gave piano and computer lessons at home. Though Friedman does look creepy and has a strange sense of humor, he still comes across as an amiable nebbish.
The fifty-something Arnold Friedman was arrested in a postal sting operation in 1987, sometime before Thanksgiving Day, for possessing a child porn magazine of men sodomizing boys which he received by mail from the Netherlands. After police search his basement office, which was off-limits to his family, they found stacks of kiddie porn magazines behind the piano. This brings in the Nassau County Sex Crimes Unit and their investigation of the computer class the father and the younger son taught to young boys in their home, and it brings about multiple sex charges against both men. But Arnold maintains that he’s innocent of those sex crimes. Friedman does admit to being a pedophile and having long ago molested two boys at the family’s country summer cottage, as well as his own younger brother, Howard, when they both were children living in the same room. Interestingly enough Howard, who is living with a gay partner, doesn’t remember this. The Friedman’s youngest brother, Jesse, is later also charged as a pedophile stemming from the Nassau County investigation. Arnold received a life sentence and committed suicide while in prison. Jesse was arrested at 18 and at 19 was imprisoned, and was released after serving 13 years of his 18 year sentence obtained through a plea bargain–where it’s brought out that his father abused him as a child. Jesse claimed throughout he was innocent, but thought he was railroaded and would never receive a fair trial. The police are unnecessarily bothered that Jesse never showed remorse and that his brother videotaped him after the sentencing, where he was probably only letting off steam by horsing around for the camera in front of the courthouse. Jesse’s bitter mother Elaine divorced her husband when he was in prison and remarried in 1998. The first time Jesse sees her since being in prison is when he visits her new Berkshire’s home after his release and the intrusive camera is there to catch the reaction.
The film remains disturbing because it was so graphically intimate a portrayal of the family and it was also hard to digest because the truth is so unflattering and hard to determine, as it ends inconclusively. If we are to believe what we just saw, Arnold admits to being a pedophile but claims not to be the monster who molested the children in his computer class. Jesse claims to be totally innocent and to have never been a pedophile. The family remains stuck in denial throughout, which adds to the confusion of this enigmatic Greek tragedy. To add further to the tragedy, the family divides up with all three sons favoring the father and the unsupportive mother is rejected by the male gang for being cold and lacking humor and is further painted as a monster for not going along with them in their support. But she’s not the only one who questions if they are innocent, as Jesse’s lawyer seems to have doubts. Both accused men decide not to fight the battle in court where it belongs, but allow it to be fought through the home movies and video footage. By the film’s conclusion every family member has been tainted, except Seth who refused to participate and be interviewed (he was in the home movies), while the police who pursued the case hardly come off looking as good as they think they do. Almost everyone in the film seems to be too slippery a character to believe, as it’s hard to tell if they’re lying or telling the truth or just plain close-minded, and that not only includes all family members and law enforcers and defense attorneys and so-called victims interviewed in shadow, but the filmmaker himself (he left out material that would dispute a lot of what the prosecutors said that was provided by an investigative journalist, probably because he didn’t want to be viewed as anti-prosecution). The only one with nothing to hide and whose statements are easy to believe, is the former computer class pupil appearing unshadowed and disclosing he never saw any misconduct in class.
“Capturing” is carefully edited so that it tempts the public’s curiosity about such queer circumstances and conveniently plays head games with the truth as if it were merely an entertaining mystery story. The Friedmans themselves though are culpable for allowing this and playing to the camera, so it would be unfair to blame the filmmaker for taking advantage of this coup that fell into his lap. But the strange thing is that because of the filmmaker’s decision to run with the footage, the public has a chance to see something they would have never seen before. It’s a rare Errol Morris-like documentary that takes us further into studying such a dysfunctional family than probably ever before, and it works even if the subject matter is upsetting and the mystery is never resolved and the alleged victim’s side is never examined.
Through David’s persistence to videotape the family, we have a record of a dysfunctional family that is better than any that could have been invented. The filmmaker does a service to us all by focusing on the family and not trying to solve their guilt or innocence by taking on the law officials, the usual way for such projects to go. It is by removing the film from becoming an advocate, that the filmmaker scores big time in making this a unique documentary. David’s home movies trace the family from before and after the arrest and crack holes in a seemingly typical family that in actuality is really a typical family, by bringing up private things about them that should have remained private out of decency. But since they’re out in the open, they allow us to look at them as a scientist would into his microscope slides to discover things he can’t see with the naked eye.
The film zeroes in on the massive charges of sodomy brought against the two without any physical proof but through circumstantial evidence and through testimony gathered by the police who got the so-called victims to refresh their memories and testify to these incidents because others had. Everything might or might not be as the police say it is, as Debbie Nathan an investigative journalist points out there are so many holes in the case from the fact no child ever gave a hint of wrong doings in all the years the computer class was run and that if these incidents took place so openly and were forced on them it seems odd that no one mentioned it to their parent who picked them up after class. No child seemed to return from class in tears or was visibly upset or was physically bruised though the charges indicated there was rough sex, and to further poke holes in the charges–many reregistered for advanced courses. Nathan educates us further by telling of such a thing as community hysteria over sex perverts and how police often lead the children on to answer their questions the way they want them to, as the child is so eager to please an authority figure and the parents stick together for support as ‘perceived victims’ who want to lash back. That even in therapy, under hypnosis, the truth can be manufactured by the children through inducements.
The film successfully exploits our conditioned biases about sex perverts, and points out how difficult it is to get at the truth. This hostile attitude toward sex offenders dictates how we view such things, which I can clearly see is true from this film by my own reaction. Jarecki’s strategy is to leave us befuddled as he mixes in the family frankness with other facts about the case he kept hidden, which keeps altering the way we view the accused. We learn more about how we think in this film, than we do about the Friedman’s innocence or guilt. It is the filmmaker’s undeclared belief that this unfettered film allows us to get a better understanding of such sexual deviants, which is more useful than if the film tried to get to the bottom of a case that can’t any longer change the tragic events. As of now, we have a lot to learn about such men and their family life and the police procedures used in going after them. The film itself might be distasteful to many and not be all that impressive as drama and for how it regrettably shaded the truth and how the inexperienced first-time filmmaker could have looked deeper into the facts presented. But, in my opinion, it should be viewed as an historical film that lets us know a lot about what kind of people we are and what are our fears. By doing it in his own intractable way, Jarecki deserves much credit. It’s much like the subversive way Fritz Lang’s M made a case against the arbitrariness of the police procedures, and by showing how the deviant is so overpowered by his urges that he can’t help it and how everyone in society is a victim of such anti-social behavior. Jarecki has created one of the fine achievements of the new century and raised the bar on how to film future documentaries with controversial subjects.
REVIEWED ON 7/5/2003 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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