When Andrew Jarecki undertook to make a documentary on New York’s most highly ranked children’s party entertainer, David Friedman, the story he uncovered was much deeper, darker, and more complex than he had bargained for. With the use of David’s own extensive home video footage, Jarecki pieces together the fragments of a family struggling to maintain a semblance of normality in the wake of a father and son’s arrests for child abuse.
Andrew Jarecki must have thought he’d struck documentary gold when his original idea gave way to a decidedly more sensitive and secretive subject and he’d certainly have been proved right when Capturing The Friedmans won the 2003 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival. His film concerns the Friedman family whose outwardly and, evidently, inwardly pleasant and unremarkable middle-class Jewish, peninsula-dwelling existence blew apart on Thanksgiving 1987 as police raided their home in search of child pornography. Events took a bizarre turn and father Arnold and son Jesse were both arrested for sexually abusing boys in their care, a community was rocked and the family, consisting also of mother Elaine and further sons David and Seth, had to cope in the fallout.
What is probably most striking about this film is the level of objectivity it maintains, particularly when you consider the sensitive and prevalent nature of paedophilia in the media, striking as it does terror into the heart of every decent parent and disgust to the pit of every good citizen’s stomach. However, Capturing The Friedmans isn’t really about the crime but the family in free fall in the wake of allegations so catastrophic the family is destined inevitably, as a unit at least, to never recover. As the film opens with nostalgic home video footage coupled with scrawls of each family members name, it’s clear where the focus of the documentary will be and that this family is about to be players in its own sorry story. It is David’s own footage from the eye of the storm that provides much of our (sometimes uncomfortably) frank insight into the downward spiral of a family in the wake of serious allegations. Jarecki skillfully weaves the escalating devastation by interspersing the footage with his own ‘factual’ accounts from professionals involved in the case, witnesses and the alleged abused.
If ever the old 'it's not black and white' cliches were applicable it’s surely here, as the dubious investigation and ‘evidence’ paints the Friedmans case with a very dubious palette of murky greys indeed. Between the contradictions of the testimonies and the blatant shortcomings of the investigation, there is little factual evidence to uphold the case. For the Friedmans part, their side of the matter is every bit as frustrating; with no definite denial of the charges they are not so much in denial as in a refusal to accept the situation, instead remaining in horrifically static limbo, awaiting their fate as we are left to witness at first-hand the upsetting change in family dynamic. As Jarecki manages an unusual level of objectivism replacing the usual sensationalism, there is scant factual basis on either side for the viewer to make a judgement. There seems very little to indicate eighteen year old Jesse is guilty of anything at all and of Arnold we can be sure of only two things; that he is a paedophile and that he was in possession of the child pornography which set off this remarkable chain of events. To what degree he is guilty of anything further, of the large-scale abuse of which he was accused, we cannot be sure. Though this is why, amongst an undoubted witch-hunt even Matthew Hopkins himself would have been proud to have orchestrated, that this documentary is so difficult on the viewer; because it asks us to make judgement in the light of what is not only an abhorrent crime but one more linked to social ostracism and media-panic than any other in our society at present. Yes, we all hate a paedophile don’t we? But how willing are we to pin blame where there quite possibly is none just because this person has a dark and secret love absolutely unacceptable to the rest of us? Does that make them an immediate danger to their own children and any in their neighborhood they may come across, be preying on? Well that folks is something you are going to have to answer for yourselves, as Jarecki certainly isn’t going to do it for you, and for that matter neither will the Friedmans. We all take to this experience our own beliefs, judgements and moral values on this devastating crime, but how willing are we to let them go and see only the facts?
Genuinely worthy of its critical esteem, Capturing The Friedmans is fascinating, emotionally heartbreaking and beautiful. Not only a poignant reminder of the shortfalls of the legal system, but also of the workings of society and community when the panic of modern-day witch-hunt strikes. Utterly captivating and equally tragic, this is very powerful stuff