|Capturing the Friedmans
Since the beginning of time, the family has provided the root for some of the most
astonishing and/or entertaining tales in literature and drama. From biblical tales through
Greek drama to modern classics like Death of a Salesman or Long Day's Journey Into Night,
authors manage to make Tolstoy's dictum that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy
family is unhappy in its own way." It is especially pertinent to the Friedmans of Great Neck,
New York, the subject of the compelling and superb nonfiction film, CAPTURING THE
Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki (who made his mark as one of the creators of the Moviefone
service) initially intended to make a profile of children's entertainers, particularly one popular
clown 'Silly Billy' (né David Friedman), who had been the subject of several articles, including
one in The New Yorker. His shtick as an entertainer is to play the curmudgeon, yelling at
the kids while doing the same tricks over and over until he finally get it's right, spewing a
stream of jokes that are meant for the adults in the room. He is well-liked and is the
preeminent children's entertainer in New York City.
One might argue that he inherited his love of entertaining from his meek father, Arnold,
a prize-winning high school teacher who started out performing on the Borscht Belt circuit
(and later at Roseland) as a pianist and bandleader of a Latin band in the 1940s and 50s.
Arnold married, fathered three boys and settled into a life of teaching. For his nebbishy
exterior, Arnold Friedman was something of a visionary; he ran a very popular class in radio,
TV and film, experimenting with early video cameras, as well as serving as an early champion
of computer science. From his home, he ran after school classes in piano and computers.
Beginning when his children were fairly young, Arnold gave them Super 8 cameras with
which the boys documented family gatherings as well as crafting short fictional films. Some
of this very personal footage (taken after the family was torn apart by grievous accusations)
makes up the core of Jarecki's motion picture and the emotional intensity of these scenes
grip audiences who not only become fascinated but also repulsed by the raw, uncensored
material. (At times, the viewer wants to turn away but is afraid of missing some key piece of
The Friedmans' rather mundane existence was first rocked in 1987 when it became
common knowledge that Arnold Friedman was a pedophile. It was the culmination of a
three-year sting during which a postal inspector posing as a connoisseur of child
pornography finally managed to convince Arnold to mail him a magazine. Jarecki includes
this in his film as a prelude for the real horrors that followed.
During the police raid of the family home wherein they located Arnold's stash of illegal
magazines, the authorities also seized the lists of his computer classes, convinced that
the elder Friedman was molesting his students. Within weeks, several boys had come
forward to make accusations that not only implicated Arnold but also his teenage son
Jesse who was his assistant. Both were arrested and charged.
A traumatic event like an arrest can do one of two things: draw the family members
closer or tear them apart. For the Friedmans, it was the latter and Jarecki's film contains
the home movies David shot while this was occurring. David was convinced that his father
and brother were innocent. His mother, Elaine, wavered and it was her lack of commitment
to her husband that made her sons, particularly her eldest, turn on her. Of the surviving
members of the family who participated in Jarecki's movie, Elaine is the most fascinating.
At first, she appears cold and unfeeling, but as she reveals her hurt and her unhappiness,
as well as other revelations about her husband and his proclivities, she emerges with
Jarecki manages to portray the facts and presents the various versions of the story
from the point of view of David, Elaine and Jesse. (Son Seth declined to participate;
Arnold died in prison, so his viewpoint is less than successfully represented by his younger
brother Howard.) The filmmaker also includes interviews with the primary detectives, two
students, one who claimed to have been abused (although he only recalled this after
undergoing hypnosis, a now-controversial approach that has been found to yield false
memories) and another who swears that nothing untoward ever occurred. There is
even a parent of one of the children who claims he and his wife were coerced by the
police and by other families and were basically told, "this is what happened to your son."
This in spite of the fact that there was no physical evidence to support the accusations.
So how did the situation escalate to the level it did? That remains an unanswered
question. Journalist Debbie Nathan, who has studied the phenomena of false accusations,
appears in the film and offers comparisons to the McMartin case. Additionally, in an article
in the Village Voice (May 21-27, 2003), Nathan explained that she got involved in the
Friedman case because psychologist who had "treated" the children in Great Neck wrote
that most did not recall the abuse until he "plied them with details" about their alleged
abuse. Such prodding often led to repressed memories that had no root in reality.
It is ironic that Arnold Friedman was arrested for possessing child pornography when
a therapist had recommended he sublimate his urges by looking at such photographs.
Because the case was so scandalous and a story on the local news, Friedman felt he
could not get a fair trial. He accepted a plea bargain, hoping that the case against his
son would be dismissed. It was a gamble that he lost, and his son Jesse also
was convicted. In the film, there is controversy over Jesse's defense which included
allegations that Arnold had molested him. He ended up spending over a decade in
prison and now must register as a convicted sex felon. In the film, he is the one who
has clearly suffered the most, heading to jail as a bright-eyed, bushy-haired teenager
and emerging as a shell of a man.
Undoubtedly, there is much information that could not be included in a two-hour
film, but what is on screen in CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, which won the
Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is a brilliant examination of a complex and tragic case.
Jarecki has a fine sense of the dramatic (although one might quibble with how he
handles the revelation of some key information). Nevertheless, for a first-time
documentarian, Jarecki has managed to produce a superb effort. There are no
spoon-fed answers to the issues raised, there is no Hollywood-style happy ending.
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS presents many points of view and allows the
viewer to decide what (if anything) happened.
MPAA Rating: None
Running time: 107 minutes
Viewed at Magno Review Two
|© 2008 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.