Snapshot Judgments 

In his brilliantly conceived documentary Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki constructs a complex study of a crumbling family

In his brilliantly conceived documentary Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki constructs a complex study of a crumbling family

The documentary Capturing the Friedmans opens with home movie footage of the title family, and excerpts from interviews in which Elaine Friedman and her grown sons David and Jesse talk about their lives as former residents of the upper-middle-class Great Neck neighborhood of Long Island, N.Y. Their tone of voice and a few less subtle hints—like a particularly desperate snippet of David’s video diary—indicate that something has gone wrong. Soon enough, we find out what: In 1987, family patriarch Arnold Friedman was arrested for possessing child pornography.

Hearing about the charge is disorienting, especially when contrasted with the old Super-8 films of a charming Arnold in his backyard, goofing around with his own kids. The audience may well hope that this was a misunderstanding, that maybe Arnold got the magazines by mistake, or that his camera buff hobbies led to an improper fetishizing of rare images. But then it gets worse: We find out that in investigating Arnold, local police discovered that he and Jesse taught a computer class in their home; after questioning some of the students, the authorities returned to the Friedman house and arrested Arnold again, this time for sexually abusing children. They got Jesse too, as an accomplice to rape.

It would be wrong to say much about what happens next, since documentarian Andrew Jarecki has structured his film around the gradual revelation of the Friedman case—mirroring his own experience. Jarecki began the project as a film about David, who makes a living as a clown-for-hire, doing magic tricks at parties. But the more Jarecki found out about his subject’s past, the more fascinated he became with the family’s nightmarish ordeal during the late ’80s. So the director withholds information from the audience artfully—some might even say cruelly—leading us to come to conclusions that we’re later prompted to second-guess.

On one level, the charges against Arnold and Jesse appear to be a prime example of the child molestation hysteria that occasionally sweeps through some communities. There’s no physical evidence of the Friedmans’ alleged crimes, and even the police admit that the kids they interviewed—many of whom attended those computer classes for over a year—were hypnotized into remembering events that, in retrospect, seem unlikely. On the other hand, Arnold’s undisputed possession of child pornography keeps this from being a clear case of prosecutorial misjudgment. One of the questions Capturing the Friedmans asks is whether one crime alone makes a person a criminal—if a guilty man is guilty absolutely.

Jarecki seems to have had a stroke of luck in assembling Capturing the Friedmans because his subjects were so obsessive about documenting their own lives, to the extent that David shot videotape of his family while they were bickering amongst themselves about Arnold’s impending trial. But the home movies aren’t always what they seem. In the contemporary interviews that Jarecki conducts, the Friedmans deny that they were ever a really happy family, despite photographic evidence to the contrary. Similarly, photos taken by the police of the Friedman home fail to reveal the “piles of child pornography” that they claim to have found. Jarecki hammers away at the unreliability of both memory and pictures, right down to his shots of David in his clown suit, performing dazzling sleight-of-hand.

Jarecki could be criticized for exploiting a family’s dark secrets, or for manipulating his audience, or even for maximizing ambiguity by failing to directly and thoroughly confront the Friedmans’ accusers with the holes in their story. But that would be dodging the full impact of one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed documentaries since Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb. Facts aside, what emerges from Jarecki’s careful editing is a sketch of how every family, when pushed, can crumble, and how human beings are capable of constructing an internal explanation for their lives that’s inconsistent with everyone else’s reality. Capturing the Friedmans is an at times overwhelming trip into the darkness of human perception—the documentary equivalent of one of those classic films noir where it turns out that everyone is a sinner, even if they haven’t committed the sins for which they’ve been condemned.

—Noel Murray

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