“Turn it off. Don’t watch this. This is private.”
2003. Unrated. Out on DVD. Directed by Andrew Jarecki. With Arnold, David, Elaine, Jesse & Seth Friedman.
In the early part of this decade, Andrew Jarecki, the founder of Moviefone, was making a documentary about the highly-paid birthday clowns in New York City, a fairly interesting subject in its own right. While investigating the background of a particularly successful clown, Jarecki stumbled onto something exponentially greater, an explosive, compelling and often unbelievable subject that became the Oscar-nominated 2003 documentary, Capturing the Friedmans.
The clown, David Friedman, it turns out, was harboring quite a skeleton in his closet. As a young man growing up in a well-to-do town on Long Island in the 1980s, his father, Arnold, and younger brother, Jesse were charged with molesting numerous young boys in their basement while giving them computer lessons. What made this discovery a gold mine for Jarecki was that David had filmed the family throughout the legal battle, and these home movies provide the backbone for the film.
Often, these moments are so intimately (and uncomfortably) personal that you cannot help but feel like a voyeur for watching. Jarecki weaves them between modern-day interviews of the main players on both sides — the Friedmans and their defenders versus their accusers and the judge, prosecutors, and detectives that pursued the case. Both sides are adamant in their version of the truth and what really happened in that basement.
The Friedmans’ nightmare started when Arnold was found to both possess and distribute child pornography, and when the authorities found out that he and his son were teaching a computer class to neighborhood children, they put 2 and 2 together. The problem was, they refused to back down when their initial investigation went nowhere — to them, Arnold and Jesse were presumed guilty and it was only a matter of shaping the evidence and coercing testimony to prove it.
Jesse, the youngest son, is responsible for most of the film’s heartbreaking moments. A shy, sweet, naive kid with a speech impediment, he is easily manipulated by all those around him and it is he who ends up paying most dearly for the sins of his father. His story is a frightening look at how the criminal justice system, a world of black and white, fails when it encounters the gray area in between.
Jarecki is brilliant in his presentation of the film and this, along with the raw material in the home movies, is what makes the film so successful. There has been some criticism of the film’s ambiguity and Jarecki’s refusal to take a side and frame the story. But I think the film is stronger for that — it simply presents the facts and interviews without a slanted perspective and asks the audience to make up their own mind. I came out of the film outraged and firmly believing that Jesse had been railroaded — but I’m sure others came out with precisely the opposite view. In the end, that is what a true documentary should do — tell a story and let the audience, with their own biases and backgrounds, decide how to interpret it.
As a feature, the subject matter in Capturing the Friedmans would have probably made a good movie. As a documentary, though, knowing that these events and characters are real, it is haunting and unnerving, a film still under my skin nearly five years after its release. It is not an easy film to watch and the subject matter is obviously pretty graphic and often disturbing. But it is more than just a great film — it is an important one too, for it is impossible to watch and not continue thinking about it and viewing the world in a different way afterwards. This is what all films should strive for and this is what makes Capturing the Friedmans not just one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, but also one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
As a postscript, for anyone who has seen the film and is curious what Jesse is doing now you can visit his site.