Movie Review
Capturing the Friedmans
2003
Director: Andrew Jarecki
Cast: David Friedman, Arnold Friedman
A-

documentary fans, filmmakers, and rabid watchers of reality TV shows alike must all at some point ask themselves this question: how much is too much? What are we probing for, prodding for, hoping to see revealed that will somehow vindicate our own humanity, or, on a good day, fuel our fantasies? Andrew Jarecki's difficult documentary about a seemingly ordinary - and in reality, totally fucked - Long Island family begins as a lengthy exploration of the confusion of legal coercion, guilt, and innocence in the wake of a sex abuse scandal, and ends as an expose on the confusion and pain of a shattered family. As viewers we feel we've somehow gone over the line of propriety, but the Friedmans themselves are all too willing to take us there.


Originally conceived as a documentary about David Friedman, a highly successful and altogether depressing children's birthday clown in New York City, Jarecki quickly found a more interesting subject in the backstory of David's family. David's father, the now-deceased Arnold Friedman, and his youngest brother, Jesse, had been accused of sexually abusing numerous young men from their neighborhood during computer classes taught in their home. The family of five (including middle brother Seth - best known these days as former editor of underground press stalwart Factsheet Five - who declined to participate in the documentary) faced what would become the struggle that destroyed their family: a struggle of trust and faith, and eventually of family member against family member.


And this is where Jarecki got lucky. The rapid and screaming degeneration of the Friedman's family unit is disconcertingly well-documented in hours and hours of home video footage, usually shot by David, who along with his father had long been an avid home videographer. Unfathomably, David and mother Elaine supplied Jarecki with the bulk of Capturing the Friedmans' best footage - from reel after reel of idyllic home movies of the three laughing young boys to later films of shrill, often cruel family arguments. Why the Friedmans - who in initial interview footage seemed reluctant to dredge up old sores - decided to make public not only their story, but its most intimate, minute, and often private moments - remains one of the film's biggest mysteries (David even supplied Jarecki with a tape of himself recording a "video diary" in which he insists that no one besides him should ever, under any circumstances, view the contents).


The mystery of the Friedmans' candor is woven inseparably through the mystery of Arnold and Jesse's tale, a web of stories which even the family, even the lawyers-- indeed, even Jesse himself-- seem unsure about believing. Carefully assembled interviews of the authorities involved in the case suggest that the highly suggestible young complainants were coerced or encouraged into giving their testimony, and of all the Friedman's former computer students, Jarecki can only find one who insists abuse did take place (it is later disclosed that the young man's memory of the events was"revealed" to him after intensive hypnotherapy sessions).


And yet for all Jarecki does to poke holes in the prosecution's case, there is a lingering--no, looming-- sense that even if Arnold isn't guilty of exactly what he's being accused of here, he's certainly guilty of something. A caught and admitted pedophile, the elder Friedman never quite tugs on the heartstrings of the audience as a wronged man, though this isn't the case within the family itself, which has all but vilified mother Elaine while staunchly defending humble Arnold to the death.


Elaine isn't without fault - at best she's a classic mother in denial, absent mentally if not physically from the growing problems among her sons and husband. Her inability to believe in Arnold's innocence is the sticking point for David, who repeatedly refers to his mother as "crazy", and an "idiot", blaming her, and not his child-molesting father, for the total breakdown of their family unit. What the camera - David's usually - pulls out to show us is a wide shot of a family mired in distance and denial. Elaine, who can't quite fully grasp the idea that her husband was a pederast, is unable to believe either that he is wholly innocent. David is blind to his father's culpability, and Jesse seems to simply float along, playing the baby, as if he had no role in this - or no anger that his father's predilections implicated him - whatsoever. The cinematic distance David's home movies create from his own feelings ("I made the movies so I wouldn't have to remember," he says at one point) is but a slight measure of the distance each family member has made from one another, from their own feelings and from themselves. While all of the Friedmans live in full-blown chaos from the onset of the charges through to Jesse's trial, not one of the Friedmans seems to be fully living. They are angry, vacant, missing from themselves. Arnold floats through late footage like an abashed ghost, eyes turned down, unspeaking, while his sons scream at full volume at each other about whether they will ever see their father as a free man again.


And it is this footage more than any of the other, the despairing collapse of a house of cards that called itself a family, that horrifies the most. Jarecki presents the Friedman's downfall more tragically than even the victimization of the young boys, more upsettingly than even the travesties of justice inevitably revealed by the reopening of the subject. And even without knowing what the truth really is, this story is the clearest one of all, its weight heavier than the shadowy faces of would-be victims, the ominously perverse shots of the Commodore PET computers in the Friedman basement (where what if, just what if, unspeakable things really did happen?), or the confused obliviousness of Jesse, dancing outside the courthouse on the day of his trial. Here is a family willing to tear themselves apart because no one person could be strong enough to hold them together. Here is a family that quickly changed one set of illusions for another. Here was a family. And they've got the tape to prove it.


By: Liz Clayton
Published on: 2003-09-01
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