"Capturing the Friedmans" the Movie Event of the Year Print
Movies - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 19 August 2003 18:00

Capturing the FriedmansCAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS

In November of 1987, as Thanksgiving dinner was being prepared in the seemingly unexceptional household of the Friedmans – father Arnold, mother Elaine, and sons David, Seth, and Jesse – of Great Neck, Long Island, there was a knock at the door.

Standing there were agents from the FBI, alerted by area postal employees of child pornography being delivered to and from the Friedmans’ home. During a search, the agents found even more underage porn, and once the story hit the media, a new scandal emerged – Arnold Friedman and his youngest son, Jesse, who taught computer classes together to area youths in their basement, were arrested on dozens of counts of child molestation and sexual abuse, which Arnold and Jesse vehemently protested. The events that unfurled, and the toll they took on the Friedman family, are the subjects of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, currently playing at the Brew & View. Employing present-day interviews, media footage, and, most incredibly, numerous home movies taken by the family’s eldest son, David, Capturing the Friedmans is easily the film event of the year, and ranks with Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse and American Dream as one of the most remarkable documentaries I’ve ever seen.

What sets Jarecki’s movie apart from something you’d normally view on television, what makes it so extraordinary, is that your allegiances are constantly shifting through the course of the film. Throughout the work, Jarecki will lead you to sympathize with someone only to pull the rug out from under you with a later revelation, and this is especially true in the case of poor, much-maligned Elaine. Faced with the knowledge that her husband is indeed a pedophile, Elaine withdraws from the family and incurs the venomous wrath of her children, who believe she should show blind allegiance to her husband and his protestations of innocence. You ache for the woman, yet when you learn that she convinced both her husband and son to plead guilty to numerous charges – and hear her, with almost clichéd Jewish-mother resignation, say, “Nothing good ever happens to me. Only bad.” – a bigger picture begins to be revealed. Elaine is a victim, yes, but one who, having to endure four men in her family more connected to each other than to her, might have sought out the role of victim, consciously or not. By film’s end, she appears to have received what she always wanted – freedom from the family – but at what price? Elaine is only one of more than a dozen figures in Capturing the Friedmans whom you feel intimately connected to, and the innovative use of the Friedmans’ home movies makes the film a singular experience; the footage, particularly of the family’s post-trial meltdowns (including a harrowing one of David speaking directly to the camera) reveal American dysfunction in a way we might never have imagined possible onscreen.

Andrew Jarecki has made a bold, astonishing film, but we shouldn’t necessarily believe his public claims that he set about to make an unbiased one. Capturing the Friedmans is suffused with ambiguity, true, yet any occasional viewer of TV’s 60 Minutes can see the tactics Jarecki uses to gently guide you toward his point-of-view. For instance, two of Arnold Friedman’s former computer students are interviewed in the course of the film. The one who states that nothing untoward happened in the Friedmans’ basement is shot in standard close-up, and the one who admits to being sexually abused years ago is shot in shadow, to protect his identity. This seems perfectly understandable, but why does Jarecki proceed to film this second man splayed on a couch, so that, while his face is indeed hidden, his torso is clearly visible? The answer comes with the later appearances of this “victim,” when his allegations are being questioned and debunked. You watch the man shifting uncomfortably on the couch, backing up and “clarifying” his story, and his edgy physicality underlines the point of the sequence – Jarecki doesn’t want you to believe a word this guy says. (It helps Jarecki’s cause that the “abused” has the insinuating, vaguely sinister voice of a drugged-out street hustler.)

Throughout the film, Jarecki uses similar tactics to express his viewpoints on the sexual-abuse allegations – a detective on the case describes the waist-high stacks of child porn they found in the Friedmans’ living room, which Jarecki follows with snapshots, taken at the time of Arnold’s arrest, of the pristine, and definitely porn-free, living room – and some critics have used these examples to accuse Jarecki of audience manipulation. Yet Jarecki’s bias in no way detracts from the film’s mystery; if anything, it adds to it. Jarecki makes no attempt to hide the fact that something unseemly might have indeed happened in those computer classes – even Jesse alludes to it on the day of his sentencing – yet while Arnold Friedman is indeed guilty of many crimes, the sexual-abuse allegations seem insanely trumped-up. (Arnold and Jesse were eventually accused of hundreds of accounts of abuse, not one reported at the time and not one involving any kind of physical evidence.) We’re put in the position of wanting to defend an admitted pedophile, which, to put it mildly, is a queasy proposition, and it’s the heart of Capturing the Friedmans’ genius; in the end, you feel for everyone – the accused, the relatives, even the detectives – because, like you, they’re all searching for answers to the question “How did this happen?” that they’ll never get.

Upon leaving the Brew & View, the friend I saw the film with said, “That movie was amazing, but I don’t think I ever want to see it again.” His response made perfect sense: Capturing the Friedmans is such an emotionally wrenching experience, and the incorporation of the Friedmans’ home movies brings the family so painfully close to you, that experiencing Andrew Jarecki’s work is like watching the slow disintegration of people you’ve known for years, and, at times, it borders on the unbearable. Yet the film is also exhilarating. You watch the movie as a detective would, seeking out pieces of the puzzle that you hope will put the experience into perspective, only to be confounded by the realization that the whole truth will never be known; like the endless theorizing about JFK’s assassination, the mysteries behind Capturing the Friedmans are seductive, elusive, and unfailingly fascinating. Trying to “understand” what happened with this sad, unforgettable family might, in the end, be futile, but in Jarecki’s sublime achievement, the search for the answers leads to a profound understanding of the complexity of family dynamics; many viewers will no doubt agree with my friend’s assertion that “I don’t think I ever want to see it again,” but I imagine an equal amount will understand my retort to him: “I think I want to see it every day.”