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.
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
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
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
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