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Capturing the Friedmans

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Capturing the Friedmans is a disturbing Oscar-nominated documentary that leads viewers to question their sense of the factual. It’s impossible to know after watching the film what “really” happened to the characters … and they are “characters,” not fictional but presented (and often happy to present themselves) as characters in the film of their lives.

I don’t have much to say about the story itself … you can learn about it by watching the film, or just surfing the web. Suffice to say that it appears injustice has been done, but it’s not always clear who is the victim. The lives thrown up on the screen are extremely messy ones; no one comes off particularly well, and our sympathy for those apparent victims is tempered by the problem that most of the people in the movie come off as disingenuous … although perhaps even that is unfair, since it’s never clear that these people are aware of how tricky they are being. (I’ve only written two paragraphs, and already I’ve said “impossible to know” and “not always clear” and “it’s never clear” … it’s not that the movie is ambiguous as much as it deals with people who are untrustworthy, and our lack of trust means we don’t quite know what to think.)

The filmmakers aren’t immune to this untrustworthy aura. The movie is precisely edited, and wears its nonjudgmental stance on its sleeve. But the presentation of material is too canny, the offering and withholding of evidence too intelligent … when, near the end of the film, the camera moves to the left of one of the interviewees and we learn something important about the person’s life, the question arises: if it was important that we know this, why wait until the end of the movie to tell us? The motives of the filmmakers, it appears, are also “impossible to know.”

In the end, the person who comes off best is the one character who declined to participate in the film. Growing up in a family that seemed to film/tape every event in that family’s life, he seems to appreciate what his brothers and father never quite grasp: that truth isn’t always found in a camera. He becomes the most admirable person in the movie by refusing to be in the movie. Meanwhile, the rest of us, characters in the film, filmmakers, or audience members, are left feeling a little bit dirty via our participation in the project that is Capturing the Friedmans. It’s an impressive film; I only wish I trusted it more. Eight on a scale of ten.

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