Sunday, May 15, 2011

Film Review | Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

All in the Family

by Thomas Delapa

Of all American institutions, none is quite as sacred as the family. It’s been the fodder (and mother) for a score of sitcoms, from Leave It to Beaver to Home Improvement. Even dysfunctional families–like the Osbournes–have their own TV shows. The family is that great, warm-and-fuzzy bulwark against the world, a safe haven that’s revered, if sometimes reviled.

Yet families are fragile things. Divorce and death–and time itself–can tear them apart. But nothing comes close to the destruction of New York’s Friedman family, caught on film in Andrew Jarecki’s riveting Capturing the Friedmans.

A Sundance award-winner, this disturbing documentary unfolds like a factual version of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Both films are deeply concerned with the labyrinthine relativity of truth. Both attempt to rehash traumatic past events from the prism of individual testimony. Is the truth ever really out there? It all depends whom you ask.

In the early 1980s, the Friedmans were a typical middle-class, Jewish family from Long Island. Arnold was a quiet, respected schoolteacher who taught piano and computer classes at night. Arnold and wife Elaine were busy raising three teenage sons, David, Seth and Jesse.

"I had a good family, right?" Elaine asks in retrospect. We’re reminded early on that looks are deceiving. In 1984, the FBI arrested Arnold on charges of receiving child pornography through the mail. Agents searched his house and found kiddie-porn magazines hidden behind the piano. It was just the beginning of the Friedman nightmare. Soon after, both Arnold and Jesse were put on trial, charged with more than a hundred counts of child molestation and sodomy. The alleged victims were boys from Arnold’s computer class.

Capturing the Friedmans is dicey, difficult material, and not simply due to its ghastly subject matter. The Friedmans–first Arnold and then son David–were almost obsessive about documenting their lives in home movies. Jarecki in turn skillfully incorporates that footage into his film. The result is a devastating record of a family coming apart before our eyes.

At the same time, Jarecki shakes our belief in the nature of truth and justice. Through interviews with the principals in Arnold and Jesse’s case, Jarecki raises troubling questions about the way the police conducted the investigation. The judge staunchly maintains that Arnold was guilty. A journalist who specializes in such sex cases argues that Arnold and Jesse were victims of overzealous police and a Crucible-like community hysteria.

Yet Jarecki isn’t a muckraker a la Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line (his 1988 documentary that helped exonerate a Texas man convicted of murder). Jarecki raises questions, but doesn’t necessarily set out to answer them. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Arnold Friedman’s trial is that absolutely no physical evidence was submitted. The conviction came strictly on the boys’ testimony, some of which came through the dubious use of hypnosis.

It is evidently true that Arnold was a pedophile. He had several clandestine relations with teenaged boys apart from the computer class. To this day, David vehemently believes in his father’s innocence. In one of many of the film’s wry ironies, David today is one of the most popular "birthday clowns" in New York City. (Seth refused Jarecki’s request for an interview.)

On first glance, the Friedmans’ home movies exude an air of normalcy. But Elaine’s hindsight criticism of the unusual bonds between Arnold and his sons made me look closer. The outrage voiced by both David and Jesse may be indicative of two brothers working on at least two decades of denial.

As you watch the Friedmans destruct at home around the dinner table, you wonder if the truth of what went on will ever be known. And you may worry just how close similar deviance is to other "normal" families. On the surface, the Friedmans were right out of Ozzie & Harriet. But lurking under the dinner table, there was something dark and festering that no one dared say–even today.

[N.B. Arnold Friedman died in prison in 1995; Jesse Friedman was released from prison in 2001 after serving 13 years of his sentence.]

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 7/24/03

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