It's Been Real
Capturing the Friedmans
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"I still think I knew my father pretty well"¦"-David Friedman

Though I had never seen Dear Zachary or Capturing the Friedmans before undertaking this project, they turned out to be companion pieces in many ways. Both films started out as something very different than what they ended up becoming; in the case of Zachary, there were multiple changes to the film's structure and narrative force, which I discussed in the last installment of this column; in the case of Friedmans, director Andrew Jarecki set out to make a movie about birthday entertainers in New York City before stumbling upon the story of #1 clown in New York David Friedman's father and brother's convictions for child molestation. Both films are about the relationship between a father and a son, in Zachary's case, about a relationship that was never able to occur, and in Friedmans', about a relationship that played out fully, whether or not it was for the best. Both films deal with criminal cases that tear families apart.

In many ways it is good that these two films happened to be scheduled in back-to-back installments of It's Been Real, though I have to say they should never be watched as a double feature if you hope to ever be happy again. I think perhaps the key difference between these two films is that while the events in Zachary, tragic though they may be, are detailed in a very straightforward, agreed upon fashion (if potentially a biased one), Capturing the Friedmans is diligent about keeping things more ambiguous. Ostensibly, the film examines the investigation and conviction of Arnold and Jesse Friedman for hundreds of counts of child molestation (ultimately plead down in both cases) and the effect this had on their lives and the lives of the Friedman family, but ultimately it becomes a meditation on the nature of truth itself and what, if anything, we can ever really know about another individual.

The crimes the Friedmans are accused of are heinous in nature, but the film also carefully points out that the charges, when considered carefully, are also completely outrageous. Child molestation is the most horrific crime our society can conceive of, but what is often ignored is that in the hysteria over perceived acts of perversion, the truth can be obscured or even completely ignored. Many of the people interviewed in the documentary, including several alleged victims, believe completely in the innocence of both Friedmans. Some of the victims even admit that they perjured themselves in an effort to get the police to stop interrogating them. The investigation clearly overlooked many practical considerations: the crimes are alleged to have been perpetrated during a computer class Friedman taught, yet parents often dropped by the class early and never saw anything, and no child ever told his parents about anything suspect. There was never any physical evidence of abuse discovered or presented to the court. If abuse did occur, why did so many kids, including several alleged victims, re-enroll in the class? In one instance, Jesse points out that he is alleged to have abused a particular child 31 times over the ten sessions of the course, or 3 times an hour during every session, and when that kid re-enrolled, he is alleged to have molested him 41 additional times over the ten sessions of the second course. There is much evidence presented that the testimony was coerced by overzealous authorities, that the Friedmans may have been railroaded into confessing to horrendous crimes they did not commit.

Alternatively, Arnold Friedman was an admitted pedophile, who possessed large quantities of child pornography and confessed at various times to molesting his brother during childhood (his brother firmly denies this ever occurred) and to molesting, but never sodomizing, two boys near his family's vacation home. Perhaps the most fascinating portions of the film come from moments where two people tell exactly opposite accounts of the same story. Why would Arnold admit to molesting his brother multiple times for years during their childhood if it never occurred? Additionally, Jesse's lawyer, who firmly believes his client was innocent, claims that Jesse confessed to being abused by his father while Jesse himself claims his lawyer told him to say that to get a more lenient sentence from the judge.

Beyond the mere facts of the case, which the film tries to present objectively, Capturing the Friedmans documents the dissolution of a family, both through talking head interviews conducted by Jarecki with David, Jesse, and their mother Elaine (their other brother Seth refused to be interviewed and Arnold killed himself in prison in 1995) and through shocking amounts of archival footage, recorded by David so that, by his own admission, he didn't have to remember anything that was happening. The men of the family ally themselves against Elaine, who refuses to believe her husband is innocent and convinces him to plead guilty to save Jesse, and the anger grows, remaining apparent even in the interviews conducted nearly 20 years after the case. David sees his mother as controlling and naïve, Elaine believes she was betrayed and ignored by her husband and all of her sons. It becomes clear that, guilty or innocent, the charges levied against the Friedmans completely destroyed the lives of everyone involved.

Capturing the Friedmans is compelling both as a contemplative look at the dangerous ambiguities inherent in a child molestation investigation, and in the examination of the total dissolution of a dysfunctional American family. While Jarecki's sympathies have since been revealed to lie with the Friedmans (he has paid for some of Jesse's appeal efforts to get his guilty plea reversed), his film still appears to be as objective as possible, leaving a strong feeling of ambiguity that adds to the film's tragedy. The Friedman family had problems whether or not serial child molestation was among them, and watching them come apart at the seems is as darkly compelling as it is painfully heartrending. The truth of this case may never be known, but the consequences are readily, agonizingly apparent.

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Coming up on It's Been Real:

12/11: Triumph of the Will

12/25: Young at Heart

1/8: March of the Penguins

1/22: Man with the Movie Camera
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