The genesis of Andrew Jarecki’s "Capturing the Friedmans" has already become an established industry anecdote. Jarecki, who from what I understand has only his status as co-founder of MovieFone connecting him to the industry, set out, for reasons I cannot imagine, to make a documentary about party clowns in New York City. David Friedman has somehow managed to become, according to someone I suppose, the number one party clown in New York. What that means I can’t really guess. It’s probably not surprising that during the course of Jarecki’s interviews with David Friedman, something turned out to be more interesting than a documentary about party clowns. That, however, is the only thing that isn’t surprising about David Friedman’s life.
A calm before the storm
"Capturing the Friedmans" is a look at a bizarre family, and the even more bizarre circumstances which led to the father and one son going to jail for child molestation. Before we judge prematurely, the true brilliance of "Capturing the Friedmans" is in its development of the way varying perspectives skew our dealings with the world, and our memory. I don’t want to be taken as suggesting that Arnold Friedman, the father, is less than creepy. On the contrary, he’s one of the creepiest people you’ll ever run into, whether he did what he was accused of or not. The point, however, is that everyone is creepy. Absolutely every aspect of the case will make your flesh crawl. On the other hand, that depends to a certain degree on the perspective you bring to the table.
Arnold Friedman was a mild-mannered school teacher who gave lessons in computer literacy to children to add to the family finances. This was in the earliest days of computers, and such a class was a luxury for the upper-middle class children that lived in the Friedman’s neighborhood. Then one day a policeman came to the Friedman home with a search warrant. We weren’t off the deep end at this point, though Arnold wasn’t going to win many more teacher of the year awards. The police were looking for child pornography. They knew for a fact he had some, but they wanted to see just how much there was. There wasn’t, quite frankly, all that much. Sure, any amount is too much, but a dozen or so magazines is still a different sort of nut than thousands. So, Arnold has some explaining to do, but life with his wife and three sons might still go on. Then the investigator in charge of the child pornography case (the only sane person in the entire film if you ask me) learns that Arnold taught these computer classes. Just as he should have done, I think, he suggested to the sex crimes unit that maybe we should look into the fact that these young children come to Arnold’s house. I know, your skin is crawling already, isn’t it?
Here’s where things go completely loopy. The film has interview footage with the woman who was in charge of the sex crime investigation, and a police officer operating from a more offensive mindset you are not likely to meet. Finding out what, if anything, happened to those children, the truth in other words, was clearly never a goal. After, apparently, several months of interviewing these young children, the counts of sexual abuse against Arnold Friedman become legion. Jarecki, whose film nevertheless takes no sides (and how could it), shows experts in the field of questioning children. As we might expect, we hear them say that such questioning is extremely tricky, and one should only ever ask children what happened, never suggest what happened. Children, as I’m sure we’ve all heard, are extremely vulnerable in such situations, and are quite likely to give the answers people want to hear. We cut immediately from said expert to one of the officers who conducted the interviews. Though he himself claims to understand the inherent problems with questioning children, he describes the form of questioning used during this investigation:
"We know such-and-such happened, and he did so-and-so to you, didn’t he?"
In case we’re unconvinced that things were handled poorly, the film includes new interview footage with some of these children. One readily admits that he simply told the police whatever they wanted him to say because they wouldn’t leave him alone. His testimony resulted in a score or so counts of molestation. The parent of one of the children investigated talks about how the police told him they knew his child was molested, and tried similar questioning tactics. Worse still, several of the children were put under hypnosis. Though the movie only mentions the fact in passing, the chief reason no one should ever be hypnotized in such a situation is that it is considered at least as likely that memories will be created rather than "uncovered".
Jesse, the Friedman’s youngest son is also mentioned during the questioning. He apparently helped his father teach the class at times, and once his name was mentioned, inevitably there were charges developed against him as well. One child admits in new interview footage that he made up something to tell the police about Jesse because they wouldn’t stop asking if he was involved.
Now, I wouldn’t want to be considered to be defending the Friedmans. I surely don’t know what happened, and after watching this film you won’t either. Don't think you will. Arnold admitted to being attracted to young boys, and there isn’t the slightest question that he indeed possessed child pornography. Did something happen, ever, with any of the children who took his class that was at the very least inappropriate? You could find no one easier to convince than me. But, notice I said "convince". If you want me to take it as a given merely because the accusation has been made, however, you’'ve got the wrong guy here, and I don’t care how disgusting it is to have child pornography. But, whether he did anything isn't at issue anyway, because I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty - he didn’t do what they accused him of. It’s absolutely impossible. In the end there were so many counts against him, associated with so many children, and so bizarrely heinous were the allegations, that there isn’t the remotest chance he could have actually done even a significant portion of them, much less all of them. 90 minutes every Saturday for a few weeks is time enough to do a lot. It is not, however, enough time to do thousands of things that would gag the Marquis de Sade, and have all the children smiling by the time their parents arrive, frequently early and unannounced. And no one ever accused him of anything until the police came and questioned the children.
Of course, this is all only one perspective. Mainly through the Friedman's home videos and interviews, the film also gives us the other side of things, and as I said, it never paints a clear picture. Though the legal side of things might be just as... odd (the judge in the case was no winner either), the Friedmans are just the sort of wackos who practically demand that a mob come and burn them at the stake. Even if no one had ever been charged with anything, a viewing of the Friedman home movies would make people do a lot of fidgeting in their seats. The beauty of the film, as I mentioned, is that it so solidly displays the contrasting perspectives, and the mindset filters through which people experience the world. The investigator from the sex crimes division speaks of the foot-high stacks of child pornography found in the Friedman home, and even describes how it could be found in plain view in the living room, and close to hand, as it were, throughout the house. Photographs from the search of the house, and other records, show that this is not remotely accurate. But, we also get a good idea of the filters through which the Friedman children, and Mrs. Friedman experience the entire fiasco, and their entire lives.
Whatever illegal activities may have occurred, the Friedmans defy you to sit comfortable with even the most insignificant aspects of their lives. Home movie buffs from the earliest days of the medium, we see quite a bit of "natural" Friedman. For reasons surely as strange as those underlying everything else about them, the Friedmans taped their worst moments. Fights about the trial, bouts of screaming at mom, and just about anything else you can imagine. Though the charges of child molestation are surely the sort of thing to whip people into a frenzy of hate, the truth is that the Friedmans are just so weird you're somewhat comfortable putting them in jail whether they did anything or not. Arnold can hardly be bothered to breathe when he comes home after six weeks in jail (don’t worry, there’s a lot more jail to follow), and Jesse acts much like a kid on his way to summer camp as he prepares to plead guilty in order to get a deal. Tearful words in the hopes of mercy on sentencing do not get so far when several people involved in the proceeding have just witnessed your full-blown Monty Python sketch in the parking lot (and the brain surgeon sketch no less).
By the time the whole thing was over (and I had a shower... and used a lot of Lava) what struck me most about the Friedmans specifically, and not the case, was that apart from an outburst or two of rage from the mother, and similar fits of anger by at least two of the sons, I really couldn't be sure that anyone from clan Friedman had ever felt an emotion in their lives. Take away a few glimpses of mistfit-esque "on" moments in front of the home movie camera during happier, much earlier times from all we see of Arnold Friedman, and for all we can tell he might be a slightly fancier version of the animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disneyland... but not much fancier.
"Capturing the Friedmans" might have been turned into a lot of different movies, and quite frankly few of them would have been brilliant. Fewer still would have managed to get to something more interesting than making absolutely every frame unsettling. Let’s face it, that's a no-brainer here. But, one that manages to move completely beyond the sensation value, and deliver grounded insight into a wide array of human problems is something rare indeed.