Capturing the Friedmans
Director : Andrew Jarecki
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2003
Andrew Jarecki’s Sundance award-winning documentary Capturing the Friedmans is two things at once: a probing look at the social panic surrounding child abuse and a disturbingly close portrait of a family in disintegration.
The title is particularly apt, as the word capture perfectly describes both what the film does and what it can never do. In a sense, it “captures” the Friedmans by showing us home video footage of them at their best and worst moments, conveying in stark terms the often-conflicting aspects of family—love, hate, jealousy, bitterness, affection, trust, loyalty—that we often take for granted. On the other hand, the one thing it can never “capture” is the truth, that is, the “capital-T Truth” about what really happened regarding accusations that Arnold Friedman, a retired high school science teacher, and his 18-year-old son, Jesse, sexually molested dozens of young boys.
The events covered in the documentary took place in the late 1980s in the upper-middle-class Long Island village of Great Neck, an insular burg of well-watered lawns, playgrounds, and friendly neighbors. The Friedmans, although a seemingly normal family, could not keep up their façade in the face of accusations about Arnold’s pedophilic desires.
That Arnold had deep-seated sexual problems was never in question. Postal investigators discovered a stash of child pornography he had ordered from the Netherlands, and in a letter to a confidant, he even admitted to sexually abusing a friend’s son. Thus, Capturing the Friedmans is in no way a one-sided exposé about innocent people martyred by mass hysteria. Rather, it is a portrait of a deeply flawed man and his family and how events outside of their control literally ripped them apart.
In constructing his portrait of the Friedmans, Jarecki compiled extensive interview footage with virtually everyone involved in the case who is still alive. Of the Friedmans, there is the mother, Elaine, who didn’t trust her husband and was ultimately alienated from her sons because she wasn’t convinced of his innocence; David, the oldest son whose bitterness toward his mother and those who accused his father and brother is borderline frightening, but still understandable; and Jesse, the youngest son who got caught up in the hysteria and may have suffered worst of all (a middle son, Seth, is seen in home video footage, but did not participate in the documentary).
Jarecki also speaks with police investigators, a district attorney, and two of the now-grown boys who were part of Arnold’s computer class. One of them, his face shrouded in a shadow and his body propped up on a couch in an almost absurdly provocative manner, claims to have been raped numerous times by Arnold and Jesse, while the other, who appears fully on-camera, says that nothing ever happened. Some of Jarecki’s approaches to interviewing his subjects are questionable, particularly in the way he treats Arnold’s younger brother, Howard, with whom Arnold claimed to have had an incestuous relationship as a child (Howard denies any such relationship). Near the end of the film, Jarecki’s camera pulls back to reveal that Howard is conducting the interview sitting next to his partner, and the sudden and late revelation that he is gay strikes an unnecessary note of connecting incest with homosexuality for no discernable purpose.
Yet, despite such flaws, Capturing the Friedmans is a deeply engrossing and tragically compelling documentary. The extensive home video footage allows us almost unimaginable access to the Friedmans’ most private moments, including images of Arnold and Jesse mere hours before they were put away for something they may or may not have done. The footage, although candid and immediate, is instructive in showing how even such direct access can never guarantee understanding. Arnold, despite all the time that he is on-screen, remains enigmatic to the end, a ghost of a man who harbored dark, guilty secrets, some of which he may have taken to the grave. Others, like Elaine and David, come across more clearly, especially in their most hysterical moments. Watching them act out their lives in the most surreal circumstances available feels almost like an invasion of privacy, but it’s one that shows us much about the darkest corners of family relations.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick