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CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS ****

DIRECTOR: Andrew Jarecki

 

The strangest thing about Arnold Friedman and his three sons was that, from the very beginning, they filmed every important family event—every birthday, holiday or celebration of any kind—as well as countless trivial, jokey male-bonding sessions at which wife-and-mother Elaine Friedman mostly hovered on the sidelines, a pathetic, rattled observer of her camera-obsessed clan.

That was the strangest thing the citizens of Great Neck, an affluent community on New York’s Long Island, knew about Friedman and his sons until the day before Thanksgiving in 1987, when police busted into their house, searched every room, from basement to attic, and led Arnold and his youngest son, 18-year-old Jesse, away in handcuffs. The charges? Arnold, a respected high school teacher, had purchased child porn through the mail, and he and Jesse had, over the years, routinely raped numerous young boys who attended computer class in the Friedmans’ basement.

When Andrew Jarecki, who had never shot a feature-length film, approached David Friedman, Arnold’s oldest son, about appearing in a documentary, he knew nothing of the young man’s sordid family history. He only knew that David was best known as Silly Billy, a clown in constant demand at kiddie parties in Manhattan, and that’s the sweet, simple story he wanted to tell in his movie. It was later that David—a mournful presence in "Capturing the Friedmans"—began to reveal the horrifying facts about his father, who committed suicide in prison, and his brother Jesse, a bitter, slightly loony individual who spent 13 years behind bars (even though he claims he and his father were both innocent and only pled guilty because of bad advice from their lawyers and from Elaine Friedman).

Understandably, Jarecki was tempted to shift focus from Silly Billy to the broader canvas of the Friedmans, a deliriously dysfunctional family that may have been undone by a combination of poor police work, inept counsel, and mass hysteria. No physical evidence of sodomy was presented, nor had any student from the computer class made mention of sexual abuse during the years it allegedly took place. Yet parents and shrinks worked overtime in their efforts to get the children to "remember" the atrocities perpetrated upon them.

Jarecki made his final decision to go with the big picture when David made available to him decades of intimate, anguished—and sometimes perversely amusing--home movies and videos that had been shot with astonishing frequency before, during and after the shambles of a trial. Among other things, these scenes captured the Friedmans singing, shouting, kvetching, laughing riotously and playing the verbal game of let’s-get-mama. (Elaine, a seeming scatterbrain who, in the end, reveals herself as an unsettling enigma, gets a little bit even as she speculates, in a casual kitchen-table interview with Jarecki, on her late husband’s baffling penchant for porn.)

Jarecki adroitly weaves these preserved flashes of domestic madness into the fabric of his film and provides fascinatingly conflicting interviews with detectives, lawyers and a sharp, compassionate investigative reporter who does not for a second doubt the essential innocence of Arnold and Jesse Friedman. Most compelling of all, perhaps, are the pictures and words of Elaine, Jesse and David as they reflect on the tragedy that ripped through their lives (only Seth, the middle son, chose not to participate in this Rashomon-like documentary).

Were Arnold and his son guilty of brutalizing defenseless children, or were they themselves the victims of an obscene miscarriage of justice? That’s a question you may be pondering for a long time after you’ve seen this dark, provocative, haunting film. "Capturing the Friedmans" may be Jarecki’s first feature film, but it wipes away everything else, fact or fiction, that we’ve seen on screen so far this year.