Capturing The Friedmans

Capturing The Friedmans

****

Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

It can be truly said that 2003 was the year of the documentary. What with the mixture of fabulous and heartaching storytelling that was Spellbound, the vertiginous terror of Touching The Void, and The Fog Of War with it's fascinating central character.

This film is a document of the events of the Friedman home in 1987. The first image is that of the home movies made by the sons of the household, showing people who were at one point happy. It is said during this montage, that Arnold Friedman loved images, a sickeningly ironic statement, given the later discovery.

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Capturing the Friedmans shows the self-destruction of a strongly dysfunctional middle-class Jewish family in events where Arnold Friedman, a respected teacher, computer and piano tutor's house was searched under a sting operation for the possession of child pornography. A collection of magazines is found hidden away in the basement, behind a piano. The computers are examined, and a complete list of the students he taught was made. Interviews are conducted of the children, and child molestation charges begin coming out of the woodwork thick and fast.

Soon Arnold Friedman is a self-confessed paedophile, having molested a young boy while in his mid-40's. Eventually he and his youngest son Jessie are charged with sodomising nearly hundreds of young students. During much of this, the eldest son David obsessively shot lots of video footage of the family. Testimony is also obtained from police detectives, the family as they are now, and through a careful bit of wrangling, director Andrew Jarecki has obtained all the family home movies and videotapes of their private moments. It's a carefully calculated and pieced together document of the dissociative lie of the clarity of the truth. There's not a single person on camera who isn't convincing in their own way, but what is the viewer to believe? This is Rashomon in structure, but multiplied 10 times over.

The interesting thing about the film is its sheer volume of testimony, with contradictory stories (a student is interviewed and revealed to self-perjure on camera), badly managed evidence and bullyish interview technique, and the complete lack of any physical evidence. It's a unwieldy mass of possible truth, and the documentarian cannot help us sift through the testimony without putting his bias and stamp on it. It's a credit to Jarecki's restraint, that the story remains fascinating and elusive. Both simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating, as a moviegoer, to not have the missing key to the story, which the family cannot help but bottle up.

A privileged position of having a camera pointing inside the household does not help us, since the family is such an elusive mystery. The father, Arnold is described as "pussy-whipped" and dominated by the passive-agressive mother. And the sons, given the situation, are understandably distressed and eventually begin shouting over each other at many of the family councils. The family was in need of some serious therapy, but putting it in the pressure cooker in this way hits everyone hard with the wounding force of guilt and grief. Ironically, David is shown to be a highly successful children's clown, in spite of the gruelling ordeals of media exposure and the destruction of the household from inside. Indeed, the most interesting moment of the film is a moment where David makes his recorded speech for himself, showing amazing grief and fury at not being able to do the right thing.

Capturing the Friedmans makes a powerful and disturbing portrait about the nature of the charges, what with the parents fury about the danger towards their children. It's a particularly incisive moment, where the hysteria of the time causes so many to ask themselves whether their own children were molested, and become convinced that they were in some way abused by Arnold. Whether Arnold and Jessie are guilty of the mass sodomy, the movie doesn't say, nor does it know. Like Oliver Stone's great JFK, the film presents us with a lot of ideas, and invites us to make sense of it. I sigh with sadness, having learned the outcome on the family and give up.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2005
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A documentary charting the implosion of a family after a child sex scandal.
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Read more Capturing The Friedmans reviews:

Trinity ****1/2
David Haviland ***

Festivals:

EIFF 2003

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