I first heard about Capturing The Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki’s award winning documentary, via The Harry Knowles Digest, sometime late last year. Upon reading Harry’s review, and deciding that this was something worth seeking out, I left the site with a fair amount of fresh knowledge stored amidst the skull-gunk behind my peepers.
Knowledge I Now Was Home To
I knew that documentaries had, over the last five years, mutated from late-night, hour-long reconstructed telly-fodder, to dynamic, often incendiary pieces of cinema.
I knew that this particular example of the genre not only dealt with a seriously contentious area (child abuse), but also tackled it in a non-sensationalist, ambiguous fashion.
I knew this had the potential to be incredibly uncomfortable viewing, one of those car-crash flicks that show up now and again, filled with scenes and images you don’t want to acknowledge or invest any thought in, but which you can’t draw yourself away from regardless.
Finally, I knew that this was probably a very good film.
Now, Here’s Some Things I Didn’t Know
I didn’t know that Capturing The Friedmans would belatedly make The Duke’s personal Best Of 2003 list, and I certainly didn’t know that it would be in the top three of such.
I didn’t know that Jarecki’s film would be so poignant, so tender, and so unjudgemental.
I didn’t know that it was probably the most important film to deal with this particular subject.
A bit of background, then.
Here in the UK, where Mondo Towers is situated, the Paedophile is probably the most vilified sexual offender of a particularly long and unpleasant list. A couple years back, The News Of The World ran a well-publicised Name And Shame campaign, through which they, well, Named and Shamed a number of convicted child-sex offenders, mostly without any thought of the consequences, and certainly outside of the law on several occasions. A lynch mob mentality was invoked, heralding a seeming free-for-all with regards the punishment of such individuals. About six miles from where I am now typing in such a melodic fashion, a paediatrician’s house was attacked by a group of vigilante-types who somewhat misunderstood her job description.
The release of a film like Capturing The Friedmans would have been unthinkable here three years ago. Anything that presented these people as human, as conscionable, as individuals who knew they were committing atrocious acts and yet were unable to arrest their descent, would be vilified as immoral, as insensitive, in fact, probably as a single notch up from the crimes in question. “Ban This Sick Paedo Film” the papers would scream. They still might.
The history of the film is something along the following lines.
Andrew Jarecki set out to make a film about children’s entertainers. You know the type, folks who show up at birthday parties with amusing blue wigs on their bonce and outlandish facial decoration. Sometimes inflatable hammers are involved.
By way of this agenda, Jarecki came into contact with David Friedman, The #1 Children’s Entertainer in the New York area. They yacked on about balloon modelling and falling over and driving little bicycles and so on, before David eventually, albeit unintentionally, hinted that there might be something rather troubling in his family’s recent history, something he was being very careful not to allude to.
It turns out there was.
In the mid-1980’s, David’s father, Arnold, a high-school teacher who also ran an after-school Computer Class, was arrested on charges relating to child pornography. Soon after, word got around that he may have been doing more than looking. And next thing you know, David’s 18-year-old brother, Jesse, is hauled away also.
What followed, judging from the evidence presented here, was a long and bitter parade of allegations, rebuttals, possibly-fabricated evidence, and distortion of the truth.
And almost every frustrated holler was captured by David’s video camera.
David Friedman agreed to let Jarecki tell the story, and handed over the hours upon hours of footage he had shot during the whole messy affair.
Thus, we, the audience, get to see David in his room, crying to the camera, telling the prospective viewer that this footage is “fucking private” and that if we’re not him, then we “shouldn’t be fucking watching it.”
Pass the popcorn?
We are also treated to footage of a Passover meal wherein seemingly the entire Friedman family, up to and including Grandma, are gathered around the table, discussing the imminent removal of the patriarch from the home, whilst passing around gravy and prodding at potatoes.
Added to this deeply unsettling archive footage, are interviews conducted in the present-day, with, among others, Elaine, Arnold’s wife, David himself, Jesse, Arnold’s brother and a plethora of professional types involved in either the legal aspects of the case, or the relating of such via the media.
But despite this embarrassment of riches as far as footage and sources is concerned, the truth is that the audience is left none the wiser about how much of the evidence presented against the two defendants was actually accurate.
That Arnold obtained child pornography is undisputed. He admits it, and John McDermott, the postal inspector, delivered it himself to the household. What isn’t so clear is how much further Friedman took his obsession. Whether or not he actually abused any children named in the case is never fully revealed. In the courts opinion, it’s undisputed, and yet here, before our very eyes and ears, witnesses claim to have been hassled and pressurised into distorting the truth, and others admit that their stories were entirely false. One alleged victim, interviewed as he lies back on his bed or couch, his face silhouetted, claims that he never remembered any of the events until after hypnosis. He now adamantly insists that the abuse took place. He also sports what appears to be a fairly prevalent trouser-growth as he repeats the accusations.
What Jarecki does, which makes Capturing The Friedmans so remarkable, is that he never at any time tells us what we are hearing or seeing is truth. He presents testimonies which appear unshakable, and then just fifteen minutes later reveals something which forces us to question everything claimed hitherto.
The humanity utilised in the telling of this tale is truly unprecedented. In this era of Tonight With This Here News Reader – Shock Evil Satanic Bastard! and such like, it is wonderfully refreshing to have a non-finger-pointin’ approach to such material.
And yet, questions do linger long after the credits roll.
For example, Arnold seemingly confesses, in a letter written to a journalist, that he did indeed act in a somewhat inappropriate manner with regards a few young boys, but not in the area named in the case, and certainly not any of those mentioned in court. Thing is, though, Arnold was apparently less than forthcoming with regards his confessions to the police. Despite the claims by some that Freidman desperately wanted to confess and do jail for his crimes, it’s hard to know whether or not he would ever have confessed to anything, had that magazine not be intercepted on its way from the Netherlands.
Like everything else here, it’s a matter for speculation. We don’t know weather Jerry Bernstein, the defence attorney, invented some scare-stories to act as currency for Jesse Friedman’s release. We don’t know if any of the testimonies by witnesses or, indeed, by the authorities, are 100% accurate. We don’t know what exactly occurred when Jesse was subsequently sentenced to 18 years in prison, or, indeed, if the sentence was justified.
We don’t know why Seth Friedman, another of Arnold’s children, refused to participate in the film.
We don’t know how secure David Friedman’s career as a children’s entertainer will be after the film is released. He himself admits that none of his professional colleagues know of the charges against his father and brother, and solemnly notes that “just the intimation of something like this can ruin someone’s career.”
What we do know, based purely on what is staring us in the face, is that the family were torn asunder by the proceedings, that the children turned on their mother, and that their mother turned on her husband.
And we know that Capturing The Friedmans is a phenomenal, incisive, telling glimpse into both sexual perversion and the effects of such on those involved, and the dangers of community hysteria overpowering factual evidence.
Capturing The Friedmans is released in the UK on the 9th of April.
The Duke resides at Mondo IrlandoPowered by Sidelines