Capturing the Friedmans (2003)


Everyone is guilty until proven innocent or likable.

How great it must be to discover that not only have you stumbled into a great story, but that someone inadvertently had the foresight to document their story for you. I am not discrediting Jarecki or Harkin for not shooting their own documentary. Sometimes you just can’t be there to observe things yourself. Sometimes you just get lucky and a goldmine of footage opens itself up to you. I am think of Herzog and Grizzly Man. When these sort of miracles happen the role no longer becomes one of observing and documenting, but of organizing.

Capturing the Friedmans is a brilliantly laid out documentary. Director/producer Andrew Jarecki and to editor/producer Richard Hankin deserve large amounts of credit for the way the story unravels. They also deserve praise for their faith in ambiguity. Plus, I really like a film that doesn’t serve to save or damn its subject, but rather make you question how it is we come to believe or not believe a subject’s story. The effect of the film, is as surprising as the story itself.

When Jarecki started documenting the life of David Friedman, New York’s #1 clown, the only thing more startling than the tragic family story behind the clown’s smile was that was the fact that the David Friedman and family documented their own downfall. Most families take pictures to remember family vacations and they buy video cameras to document birthdays and holidays. The Friedmans did that, but they also documented the family at its worst. When allegations of child pornography, sodomy, and molestation tear the family apart, the cameras continue to roll. Jarecki and Harkin owe most of their film to the Friedman’s almost unbelievable devotion to filmming or videotaping their family’s most personal moments.

Interviews with family members, lawyers, investigators, victims and their parents, not to mention exports on child abuse, are woven together the Friedman’s own footage to create a riveting drama. What makes Capturing the Friedman‘s so captivating is how it slowly reveals more and more information to you, often forcing you to rethink your opinion of the truth, even question the nature of truth. I cannot honestly tell you if I think the Friedman’s are guilty of sodomy and child molestation. The physical evidence does not seem to be there and the testimonial evidence questionable. At the same time, the Friedmans are not the easiest family to embrace. In a word, they are odd. Such personal judgments should hold no power in a court of law, or even in the case of a documentary that plays like a court case, but that’s part of what the film questions.

Overall, the film does a marvelous job of giving no one person, be they family member, investigator, lawyer or sex abuse expert enough credibility to convince you that they know the truth…the whole truth, and nothing but. Everyone has their own story, their own theory and their own suspicion and I suspect the same must be said of the filmmakers. However, there is something about the nature of film that makes us believe that filmmakers have a god like power, something that makes them omniscient. Perhaps it comes from scripted features where characters can be played like chess pieces to do a director’s bidding and where every twist and turn has been carefully choreographed to reach a -destined conclusion. If the filmmakers do posses the truth about the Friedmans they are not telling. For the most part, I’d like to think they are unbiased, often showing how each side could be both right and wrong, there never comes that bombshell moment where an irrefutable piece of evidence or ultimately damning piece of testimony comes falls into place, hat is until the end, where something very peculiar occurs.

Early in the film we are presented with the fact that the father, Arnold Friedman, was guilty of sending and receiving child pornography through the mail. This crime lays the groundwork for the later accusations against Arnold and his 18 year old son Jesse. Once we associate Arnold Freeman with child pornography it makes it all the easier to believe that he might have molested and sodomized many young boys.  The film brilliantly plays into and then (hopefully) makes us question how we are ingrained by our society to believe certain things are possible based on prejudices or fears. It doesn’t take a great leap for any of us to assume that a man willing to look at child pornography might want to have sex with a child, he might even have molest his own son, thus turning his son into a sex abuser. Any monster capable of having sex with his own child might even have had sexual relations with his own brother, when they were both children.

It is this last accusation that I found most disturbing, not because I think it is implausible. I find it disturbing because of how the filmmakers handle the interviews with Arnold’s brother, Howard. At first he comes across as just a family member wrapped up in this drama and concerned for his brother. When its revealed that Arnold may have molested his brother we are suddenly looking at a potential victim, albeit, one in denial. The brother recollects nothing of the event and seems to have gone on to live a normal life. Then, in the last minutes of the film, the brother, Howard, is seen with his partner, and at this moment it is revealed that this Howard is gay.

So what? Big deal, Arnold’s brother is gay. Why should this matter? In truth, it doesn’t, except it feels like a last minute reveal, a shocking twist, a surprise witness. It’s a cheap and rather curious stunt. Like pulling back to a wide shot to show that a man who just told you about all the wild times he went out drinking and driving is now sitting in a wheel chair. Worst of all it feels like homosexuality might be a liability.

This last minute piece of evidence calls into question the sexuality of Arnold. If Arnold’s brother is gay we start to think Arnold himself may have been gay, call this the gay genetics theory.  The question of Arnold’s sexuality is hinted at, through interview with his wife and boys. His persona and especially that of his sons, could be read as having some  homosexual qualities, but again these are personal judgements that muddy the information at hand. Whether or not Arnold preffered men to women is not the right question. What he did or didn’t do with underage boys is the real mystery, but sadly I think this last minute piece of evidence, and that is how it feels presented, throws a real curveball into the picture. I guess my big question is why wait until the end to disclose this information, why disclose it at all?

This is really my only fault of the film, other than tired and unnecessary time-lapse photography, that I abhor in nearly all documentary, but by now those sort of shots are becoming mandatory.


2 thoughts on “Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

  1. I totally agree; the last shot is strange. At the root of it, one cannot change who he/she is attracted to, whether that attraction is caused by trauma or not. It really twists things around. But I thought the recounting of testimony against the accused was really interesting, and gave people an insight to the oddities around the man, his children, and his home life. Semen in the orange juice sounds totally implausible, but a pedophile having computer lessons for kids in his basement sounds totally plausible. It’s been a while since I saw this film, but it definitely leaves an impression.

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