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February 22, 2004

Capturing the Friedmans

During interviews promoting his compelling documentary, Capturing the Friedmans (IMDB), Andrew Jarecki invariably reports that he initially planned to make a film about clowns who performed at birthday parties for wealthy children living in Manhattan. However, as he talked to David Friedman, the city's most popular clown, small details about his haunted private life began to emerge. Gradually, David revealed that his family had been torn apart by a notorious child molestation scandal in the late 1980s in Great Neck, New York, on Long Island; his father, Arnold, and his brother, Jesse, had been convicted of dozens of child molestation charges, with David insisting on their innocence. Other footage, filmed privately during the 1988 trial, shows David angrily denouncing the charges against Arold and Jesse on a video camera in something close to a videotape confessional to "his future self." Soon we see videotape and super-8 film footage from family collections, the father and his three sons hamming in front of the camera, playfully performing music and skits before an imagined audience.

This mixture of contemporary interviews (with several of the family members, law enforcement officials, and alleged victims) and the Friedman's video library creates a compelling documentary that takes its subject and its audience seriously. While Jarecki has been careful to avoid explicitly commenting on the guilt or innocnece of Arnold and Jesse, he skillfully questions the methods that police detectives used to gather information and subtly reminds veiwers that no forensic evidence was offered to support the molestation charges. In other interviews with both family members and alledged victims, Jarecki demonstrates the ureliable nature of memory itself, specifically in the case of one witness whose description of the after-school computer classes when Jesse and Arnold allegedly committed their crimes is often laced with contradictions. As Michael Atkinson suggests, Jarecki simply allows investigators to talk until they've "buried themselves in righteous dung." Jarecki also draws from the observations of Debbie Nathan, an investigative reporter, who reminds viewers that the Friedman case emerged in the late 1980s, just as hysteria about child abuse at day-care facilities had reached its peak. The use of family film footage adds a quality of cinema-verite to the film, especially the use of handheld camera during one sequence where parents of the alleged victims chase the Friedman family across the courthouse parking lot (which reminded me of a similar shot sequence in Barbara Kopple's amazing documentary, Harlan County, USA).

At the same time, Jarecki's film calls into question the reliability of David and other members of the Friedman family, as Roger Ebert points out. David's protests about his father and brother are a little too strong, and we gradually learn more about Arnold's pedophilia (it's clear that he owned a large collection of child pornography, and he later confessed privately to molesting the son of a family friend), leaving us with some ambiguity about exactly what Arnold might have done. In this sense, the film follows the logic of trial films as described by Carol Clover, positioning the audience as a "jury" re-trying the case, but without offering a clear verdict for either Arnold or Jesse (although Jesse's innocence is strongly implied).

But to say that the film is merely about the "elusiveness of the facts" seems entirely too reductive. Instead, the film should be understood, in part, as a commentary on the Freidman family's desire to record and remember their experiences, even the bitter conflicts that sometimes erupted between family members. It also addresses the complicated dynamics of the Friedman family itself. I found myself inhabiting a range of reactions to all of the members of the Friedman family from sympathy to suspicion. The film haunted me long after I finished watching it, and the DVD offers ample supplemental material to address many of the questions that were left unanswered in the film itself.

I'd really appreciate knowing what other readers thought about this film. I'm still not entirely resolved about my feelings towards some of the characters or about the stance the film takes towards them.

Posted by chuck at February 22, 2004 3:53 PM

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I kept comparing it to "Thin Blue Line," another case-based documentary with a very different approach. At times, it was clear that the film was revealing serious flaws in the case, but in some ways I think this was commentary on any sufficiently complex legal case. That is, in Thin Blue Line, the narrative sought to take a black and white case, and show that it was black and white wrong. Here, the director takes a black and white case, and shows not only that it was gray, but that it was different shades of gray depending on whose perspective one takes.

Yet, it is still a story, and the director does choose to show the cards in an order that provides a compelling discovery. In some ways, I think its attraction comes in how open the text is. One viewer might see the fact that Arnold is a pedophile enough to convict him of just about anything. Others might find themselves in the uncomfortable position of feeling that a self-admitted pedophile has clearly been wronged.

It's interesting: I didn't dig into the DVD enough to know that there was further supporting evidence. I had, frankly, had enough. It was a bit like hearing more than you want to know about a family's background.

Oh, and David's occupation creeps me out uncontrollably. Clowns already creep me out, so I'm sure my reaction was akin to how arachnophobes viewed the final LotR film...

Posted by: Alex Halavais at February 22, 2004 11:01 PM

I like the comparison with "Thin Blue Line." Unlike Morris, who clearly understood that the wrong guy had been convicted, Jarecki never quite takes a clear stand, allowing viewers to project their own readings onto the film. I think that's why I was impressed but not fully satisfied (and perhaps why I wanted to better understand the case).

The supplemental materials generally feature footage of Q&A sessions at various premieres where the family (and in some cases the police investigators) would attend, usually revisiting some of the same arguments and tensions played out in the film.

Like you, I find David's occupation to be pretty creepy.

Posted by: chuck at February 22, 2004 11:55 PM

"Capturing the Friedmans" was fascinating and hard to watch. (I saw it in a theater.) The scenes where the full weight of the community’s late-80's pedophilia-hysteria and wrath fall on the collector of illegal porn made my skin crawl. I felt sympathy for the guy having his awful secret dragged out.

The interviews with police and prosecutors made it clear, to me, that they were out to convict Arnold Friedman of a being a certain type of person--which he undeniably was--rather than convict him of a particular crime. Their methods so tainted the evidence that there's no way to know what he really did.

I remember something about how they were going to overwhelm him with charges--on the theory that anyone charged with crimes adding up to 250 years in jail would either plead or certainly be convicted, because after all somebody with that many charges must’ve done something.

I too was struck by, as you say, their tremendous desire to record themselves. Their recordo-mania was astonishing. When they showed that grainy footage of Arnold Friedman's little sister as a ballerina, that floored me. I mean, that was in the thirties, wasn't it? It was not at all common then to have family films, it seems to me.

One thing I did not like was the slow reveal of Arnold’s brother's homosexuality. The film-maker often used these reveals to undermine what had been said before: there's the ex-student talking about the lurid game of leapfrog, and then you find out that he's been hypnotized by police repeatedly. A similar thing is done with the brother: he says, "no, I don’t recall Arnold molesting me," and then the camera pulls back and shows him sitting with his gay partner. That drew titters from the audience I saw it with, and I think that's due to the filmmaker. He framed those two things as linked: where there's a gay man, there had to have been childhood perversion, is what he seems to say.

Posted by: diana at February 23, 2004 9:55 AM

Having the perspective of watching the film with an audience is actually *really* helpful in this case, especially given some of the intentionally lurid ways in which Jarecki presents this material. I found the slow reveal of Arnold's brother's sexuality problematic for similar reasons (its implicit link between homosexuality and child perversion), but watching it in the privacy of my apartment, I didn't feel the actual imapct of that kind of "tittering" response. And certainly the film has been marketed in that lurid "sex tales from the suburbs" sort of way that TV news shows use to get ratings during sweeps week, which probably adds to our perception of Arnold as a "freak."

I did feel sympathy for Arnold and Jesse Friedman (not sure that comes across clearly enough), and I do think that Jarecki's attempts to undermine the credibility of the police efforts reinforce that. One thing that has been bothering me is how the film positions the mother, Elaine (?). Through most of the film, I found her to be fairly unsympathetic, almost a villain (frequently showing her only through David's eyes), and I wish the film itself had done a little more to complicate that perception.

Good point about the film footage of Arnold's sister. Those shots were absolutely fascinating, especially the way they were used to connote some sort of prelapsarian innocence. Made me wonder if Arnold's parents had recorded other footage, too.

Posted by: chuck at February 23, 2004 11:33 AM

I watched this film and I feel strongly that both Arnold and Jesse Friedman engaged in some kind of sexual abuse of those computer students. At the beginning of the film, I found myself convinced of their innocence due to the strong declarations of David and Howard Freidman. However as the film progressed I found my opinion totally shifting because of that same reason. Arnold confessed to having sex with his brother, but Howard does not recall. He admits to molesting two young boys, yet David claims it means nothing. By the time it was all said and done, the whole Friedman family looked like a bunch of manipulative and conniving liars, save the mother Elaine.

And it was very interesting to me that almost all of the men in this film appeared to be gay. Jesse Freidman, the blackened figure on the couch (the former student who recalled the Leap Frog game ), Howard Freidman, and the former student who said he was never abused. Whether it's PC to say or not, there is a correlation between sexual abuse and homosexuality. That's not to say all homosexuals are pedophiles and child molestors. However there is definite proof that boys who are sexually abused are far more likely to be homosexual than heterosexual.

Posted by: Delia at July 22, 2004 3:49 PM

I don't think that we see enough evidence in "Capturing the Friedmans" to suggest that Arnold and Jesse engaged in sexual abuse, and the film severly complicates the evidence given by the prosecution in their case. As Alex said in an earlier comment, the film takes what appeared to be a black-and-white case and turned it into shades of gray rather than showing the prosecution to be black-and-white wrong.

In terms of the questions about sexuality, I don't think that the sexuality of any of the Friedman family members (other than Arnold's brother's homosexuality) is ever clearly portrayed in the film, and the "minor" participants (the figure on the couch, for example) also don't openly mention their sexuality.

My main concern, though, is that there is no clear corelation between pedophilia and homosexuality as you suggest. Here are a couple of fact sheets and articles that challenge that assumption:


As the Tampa Bay Coalition release points out, several of the most respected pschiatric and sociological institutions, including The American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Academy of Child Psychiatrists and the Child Welfare League of America, have explicitly challenged that myth.

Posted by: chuck at July 22, 2004 4:49 PM

Also see this GLBT Fact Sheet, which drwas from research supported by the American Pscyiatric Association:

What causes Homosexuality/Heterosexuality/Bisexuality?
No one knows what causes heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality. Homosexuality was once thought to be the result of troubled family dynamics or faulty psychological development. Those assumptions are now understood to have been based on misinformation and prejudice. Currently there is a renewed interest in searching for biological etiologies for homosexuality. However, to date there are no replicated scientific studies supporting any specific biological etiology for homosexuality. Similarly, no specific psychosocial or family dynamic cause for homosexuality has been identified, including histories of childhood sexual abuse. Sexual abuse does not appear to be more prevalent in children who grow up to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, than in children who identify as heterosexual.

Posted by: chuck at July 22, 2004 4:55 PM

I have just seen the documentry. The story is bizarre. It is obvious that this family is messed up. But the fact that David is a clown, that is in daily and personal contact with children; will cause me to lose sleep at night. This country of ours sets new lows everyday.

Posted by: J.H. at September 27, 2004 11:07 PM

I don't think that David's occupation should be relevant here. There's no evidence that he has any inclination to do anything harmful to the children he entertains. If this country is "setting new lows," it's in labelling people as guilty when they haven't committed any crimes.

Posted by: chuck at September 27, 2004 11:55 PM

Precisely. David's occupation has roots, I believe, in his desire to entertain his father and as a rally against the awfulness his family has endured, but it isn't indicative of a deficiency in his character.

Posted by: Dylan at September 28, 2004 12:08 AM

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