Check the website promoting Capturing the Friedmans and you’ll only begin to get a sense of the film’s familiar strangeness. The page opens as a photo album, amateur snapshots of a family arranged on each page, tagged with mundane titles: “The Boys,” “Arnie,” “The House,” “Jessie.” The pictures themselves document facades, the sort that everyone conjures for family photo collections. “Me and Arnie,” Elaine Friedman appears to have written under one of the couple, young, relaxed, nearly nuzzling in front of their Great Neck, Long Island home. A shot of a pleasant-faced kid with big glasses and sticks in hand is labeled, “David on the drums, a musician just like his father!” Another shot, showing two kids with moppy dark hair and eyes squinting in the sun, is marked “Jesse grabs a piggy-back from big brother David.” And still another, an interior is titled, “Arnie’s office/inner sanctum — don’t touch!”
It’s this last that hints at the roiling chaos beneath all these happy faces and still surfaces. Capturing the Friedmans is, as its own title suggests, is about capturing this family, in various ways — most obviously, in photos, on 8mm film and video. For, as it turns out, the Friedmans themselves were ruthless self-documenters, for which director Andrew Jarecki must be mightily grateful even as he might be appalled.
The movie is also about capturing them in bad acts, or rather, bad intentions, or maybe just out of place. It is about the cops coming after dad Arnold, an award-winning high school teacher, and his youngest son Jesse (18 at the time of his arrest, the day before Thanksgiving, 1987). They were accused of sexually and physically abusing their young students, during computer classes Arnold taught in their suburban basement at 17 Picadilly Road. And it is also about the hysteria that captured their community, the cops, the DA’s office, the media, even the Friedmans themselves.
Though they vowed at first to fight their accusers, father and son ended up pleading guilty, hoping to earn lesser sentences than they risked with trials. In fact, they lost everything. Arnold died in prison in 1995, and Jesse was released in 2001, after serving 13 years of a 16-year sentence. 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, peanut-butter-smearing, 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 8-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.
All sorts of questions emerge in the wake of these sequences, not least being: why would anyone expose this raw pain to the light of day, much less the voracious public — consuming everything from Fear Factor to jennicam.com, from Anna Nicole Smith to Wildest Police Chases. That’s not to say that a documentary film making the festival and art house circuit (and winner of the documentary Grand Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) will attract precisely the viewers as Punk’d, but it appeals to the prevailing collective desire, however disparaged by watchdoggy pundits or professional critics.
This isn’t to say that such desire is wrong or right or has any conventional moral valence, only that it is produced and cultivated, constructed and consumed. 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 surely does), and the film’s effect is to challenge the investigative and official processes. Much like the promotional website, the film is all about pictures that seem simultaneously candid and posed, nostalgic and harsh. Above all, they seem: there’s no telling what anyone was thinking or feeling at any point, for sure.
Most provocatively, 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.