There are Several Versions of the Story in ‘Capturing the Friedmans’, Yet the Truth Remains Elusive

“Right now readers have an incomplete version of the story, and when the report is issued, the public will see the whole picture and draw their own conclusions about the case.” In June 2013, John Byrne, spokesman for the Nassau County District Attorney’s office was asked to comment on the ongoing, seemingly endless Jesse Friedman case. His assertion of faith in this “complete version,” that it might exist or become visible to anyone, may be admirable or naïve or just hopeful, but it sounds preposterous here.

The story of Jesse Friedman and his father Arnold became well known during the late ’80s, when they were arrested and charged with molesting children in the basement of their Great Neck, Long Island home. Here, the story went, Jesse (18 at the time of his arrest in 1988) and Arnold spent years raping and otherwise abusing hundreds of boys and girls (aged eight to ten) under the guise of teaching computer classes.

The case was sensational, from the moment when 14 children told their stories to the moment when Jesse and Arnold both pleaded guilty, separately, under much media scrutiny and threat of lifelong jail terms. For Arnold, this was what happened, as he died in prison. Though he was released from prison in 2001, after serving 13 years, Jesse remains in another sort of prison, and he continues to fight to clear his name.

He is not alone in this effort. One proponent is Andrew Jarecki, the filmmaker whose 2003 documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, raised serious questions concerning the investigation and prosecution of the original case. The film is screening at “witnesses have continued to come forward who believe Jesse Friedman (his father is now deceased) was wrongfully convicted — and that the crimes never occurred.”

Today, Capturing the Friedmans resonates in multiple ways, posing questions about truth, evidence, storytelling, and — for Jesse and his family — the improprieties of legal systems. As much as he tries to live his life today, he remains a registered sex offender, and so his life is restricted. The film is, as the title suggests, is about capturing this family, in various ways. For, as it turns out, the Friedmans themselves were ruthless self-documenters: Jesse’s brother David’s video footage and family photos are everywhere in the film, along with 8mm home movies, taken by everyone, including Arnold and the boys’ mother, Elaine. These many images indicate the many ways any single-seeming experience might be understood, framed, and remembered.

Much of this footage, including David’s confessional outrage, is also about capturing the cops as they coming after Arnold, an award-winning high school teacher, and Jesse. In trying to come to a sense of what happened, Jarecki interviews Elaine and David, Arnold’s brother Howie, some police investigators (one describes the precise wrong way to question a child, essentially implanting ideas into her mind, announcing proudly that this was the procedure the department followed when going house to house during their inquiry) and a judge (brother Seth declined to be interviewed for the film).

Jarecki also speaks to several of Arnold’s ex-students, who either can’t imagine that such events occurred (hair-pulling, raping, smearing peanut-butter in the classroom in front of other students, and all without a single bit of physical evidence, ever, over the years the abuse was supposedly taking place) or one who is filmed in identity-protecting shadow, and can’t be sure, because he was hypnotized when he came up with his “memories.”

In other words, the film, for all its lack of professed judgment of its subjects, makes a clear case that Arnold and Jesse were victims — of neighbors and news media and a judicial system (see also: the McMartin trial, made into an HBO fiction film starring James Woods). To frame this argument, Jarecki talks with journalist Debbie Nathan, who has previously reported on such cases and was contacted by the Friedmans in 1989, just after they were incarcerated (see her recent summary of the case in the Village Voice). She supports the film’s contention that the case was bogus, a function of its historical moment and a tragedy for the family.

As grueling as the story is on its own, the film underlines all the injustice and hypocrisy heaped on the family with frankly unnecessary manipulations, snapshots of the family on the beach or in the backyard, transition shots with sentimental music, sprinklers and trees to set off the unsoiled surfaces that hide secrets and calamities (if the Friedmans are hiding such secrets, such images suggest, what else is going on in the burbs?).

Yet, for all the poignancy such shots Jarecki’s access to photos and exteriors is nothing compared to the other goldmine he stumbled on. The founder of MovieFone, he sold the company and set out to make a film, in particular, about children’s party clowns. With this project in mind, he began to interview Silly Billy, that is, David Friedman, a popular party clown in New York City. Impressed by the young man’s seeming candor as much as his often visible anger, Jarecki proceeded to ask questions that took them beyond the clown business, and soon learned the disquieting backstory.

Most incredibly, David granted access to hours and hours of his own home movies — he filmed and taped his family throughout the arrest and trial period to document his family’s implosion and then granted Jarecki free use of the footage. This is the most devastating aspect of the film, not David’s strenuous defense of his father, condemnation of Elaine (he blames her for convincing Arnold and Jesse to plead rather than stand trial), or even his own sense of guilt, clearly ravaging him, not for having done anything wrong, but for having survived the ordeal. His video “confessionals” are harrowing.

And, it turns out that Arnold carried his own burden for years before the arrest, a pedophile with a stash of magazines discovered by cops with a search warrant in 1987. He recalls that, following his own molestation, when he was 13, he abused his eight-year-old brother, Howard. That Howard has no similar recollection surely complicates the confession (and brings poor Howard, interviewed as an adult, nearly to tears). It also lays out the film’s most sustained, least answerable question. What is the truth? And how would you know it if you saw it?

David’s home videos appear at first look to offer some sort of truth, if only because they present raw, difficult pain. More acutely and more completely than could any interview or assembled research, these scenes — the Friedmans arguing in the kitchen, over Seder dinner, in the basement — render the devastating toll that this revelation took on them, individually and as an increasingly decrepit unit.

They are thus captured, repeatedly, even as they remain elusive, their stories incomplete, David’s stated intention in revealing his family’s horrific story is to exonerate his father and brother (whether or not he means to indict his mother, he appears to do so), and the film’s effect is to challenge the investigative and official processes. But it also challenges the very process of truth-seeking, from its hope for answers or truths to its necessary incompleteness.

And so, most provocatively and brilliantly, in doing all of these things, Capturing the Friedmans also undermines its own ostensible project, to find a truth, to get at a story that makes sense, that explains what happened. And so, the project becomes much more complicated, dense, and endless. The film bravely turns in on itself, resolving nothing and capturing less.

RATING 10 / 10