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Capturing The Friedmans

I love titles, and Capturing The Friedmans is an excellent one that works on several levels. Firstly, two out of five of the Friedmans, a nice Jewish family from Great Neck Long Island, are literally captured by the police. In another way, they are captured by the hysteria of a community that is enraptured by the possibility of what one person in the film calls 'the most evil crime of all'. Most importantly the Friedmans are captured by each other, by their family bonds that stubbornly hold them together, by their needs to fall apart, and finally by their own home video camera. Capturing the Friedmans is a documentary that combines interview, news footage, and home video to tell the story of a family under exceptional circumstances.

Perhaps the thing most apt about this title is in the film's ability to capture the audience. Even the critics at the press screening - often a tired and unenthusiastic bunch - were unusually emotional and vocal during the screening. Director Andrew Jarecki unrolls the mystery of the Friedmans with perfect control - each piece of information appearing exactly when it is needed to draw you deeper into the film. Yet, Jarecki never seems to manipulate the audience or lie to them. The truth or lack-there-of concerning the Friedmans is already twisted in all the right ways, and Jarecki simply arranges it towards the precision of a corkscrew.

Free Williamsburg
Film Archive

2003

Garmento
Capturing the Friedmans
The Eye
28 Days Later
Spellbound
Cowboy Bebop

Washington Heights
Better Luck Tomorrow
Confidence
View From the Top

Laurel Canyon

Spider
Spun
Ordinary Sinner
Dark Blue
Chaos
The Quiet American
XX/YY

2002

Intacto
Empire
Max
Hell House
Good Housekeeping
Roger Dodger
Spirited Away
Punch-Drunk Love
Bowling For Columbine
Scarlet Diva
Full Frontal
Sex and Lucia
The Powerpuff Girls Movie
Read My Lips (Sur Mes Levres)
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
Barleby
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Human Nature
Shot in the Heart
Jim Brown: All American
Stolen Summer
Curve
Ram Dass: Fierce Grace
Storytelling


Without giving away any twists, here are a few facts about the story. It's the 1980's. The police sting Arnold Friedman (the father) for sending, receiving and possessing child pornography. His crime would draw in 'survivable' punishment, but when the police learn that Arnold teaches a computer class to local thirteen-year-old boys they decide to investigate further. After the police complete their interviews of the students, Arnold and his eighteen-year-old son Jesse are brought up on multiple charges of child abuse and sexual molestation.

Regardless of whether or not molesting children is 'the most evil crime of all' it is certainly the most taboo in our society. Even the accusation can destroy a life, and a family. It is amazing that so much of this real-life trauma is captured on film. After Arnold and Jesse are out on bail and awaiting trial the home video camera rolls capturing slices of a family under such pressure that they bleed emotion and pain like slices of an orange seep juice. The level of intimacy is extreme. The horror of the alleged crime and the images of what was essentially a normal American family combine disgust and familiarity into an uncomfortable mixture.

The film becomes more mind bending as you realize that Arnold and Jesse might not be guilty of the crimes with which they are charged. The charges are too many and in many cases too extreme to believe that they remained undiscovered for years. The hysteria of the community and fallibility of the police become shockingly clear, yet the truth remains elusive and the bomb has already been dropped.

In the fall-out each family member takes a different stance. Some retreat, some become righteous, some disappear, some give up, and some stand still like a deer in headlights - never able to comprehend that something so big could be barreling toward them. And all of this is only the beginning. Time and the trial move forward and eventually each Friedman has to choose what they cling to and what they let fall away.

My favorite moment in the film is when Arnold and some of his sons are looking at an old reel of film from the 1930's. It had been lost for years and was only rediscovered by the police as they raided the house for child pornography. On it a little girl (Arnold's sister) dances and spins in a leotard, preserved on sepia long after her time. As we learn more about Arnold's past, the little girl seems to echo all of the tragedy to follow the Friedmans. In a way she seems the source of it all. Perhaps you will agree - the image is haunting.

This documentary is very powerful and is definitely one of the best I have seen in some years. It is a portrait of a family that is both beautiful and ugly, familiar and strange. What seems like it should be the most clear-cut, is the most uncertain. The criminals are impossible to identify. The mystery has no satisfying answers. I must qualify however, that Capturing the Friedmans was not difficult to watch; it was not a chore. It will pull you in from the very beginning and show you a story only as upsetting as it is worthwhile.

- Jonathan Roche




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[email protected] | June 2003 | Issue 39
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