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Caught on tape
Capturing the Friedmans is an American travesty

Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by Andrew Jarecki. No writer credited. With Arnold, Elaine, David, Seth, Jesse, and Howard Friedman, Judge Abbey Boklan, Debbie Nathan, Jerry Bernstein, and Peter Panaro. An HBO Documentary Films release (107 minutes). At the Coolidge Corner.


As anyone familiar with the John Wayne Gacy story could have told him, Andrew Jarecki shouldnít have been too surprised when his documentary about clowns took a strange and sinister turn. He wanted to do a profile on the guy heíd hired to entertain at his sonís birthday. That became Capturing the Friedmans, a harrowing, ambiguous, and provocative account of a notorious 1980s pedophile case.

" It was originally a movie about professional childrenís-birthday-party entertainers in New York City, " says Jarecki, " and Dave Friedman is, like, the number one guy. "

Dave is also the son of Arnold Friedman, a respected Great Neck (Long Island) teacher, and the brother of Jesse Friedman, who was just 18 when on Thanksgiving Day 1987 he and his father found themselves under arrest for molesting young boys. After Arnold and Jesse were taken into custody by the police, the Friedmans proceeded to capture themselves on videotape, recording every brutal argument and pathetic reconciliation as they tried to cope with the ongoing investigation and prosecution, with the shocking revelations and the unresolved mysteries. All of which Jarecki includes in his film, as well as interviews with Friedman family members and the police, lawyers, journalists, and others involved in the case.

More than the shocking nature of the material ó not just the crime but its prosecution, too ó the film has upset audiences by its refusal to judge. " This is a year in America when things tend to be painted very much in black and white, and itís understandable, " Jarecki says. " I understand why terrorism and things tend to polarize people, but at the same time, I feel like most of the time thatís not true. You donít generally have good people and bad people. You ask some guy who robbed a bank whether heís good or bad and he says, ĎWell Iím just trying to feed my family,í and itís not quite as clear even though he did a very bad thing.

" I think that in this film we try to transcend these easy definitions of people; we say, ĎLook, Arnold Friedman, in a lot of ways, is a very good guy.í Certainly Iíve gotten tons of letters from people who knew I was making the film saying, ĎThis man changed my life and I was a lousy student and he taught me how to use computers and he taught me about chemistry and I never saw a hint of any bad behavior of any kind from him and it was shocking to me that this case ever emerged.í And then other people who say, ĎWell, I didnít know Arnold Friedman, but I canít believe that you would make a film about that case.í I just feel like the fact that the film portrays things in a humane way and in an as realistic as possible way is something thatís being welcomed in general. People who see the film say, ĎYou know, I was kind of ready for something thatís not quite so cut and dry.í  "

Were Arnold and Jesse innocent? They pled guilty, but under circumstances, as the film demonstrates, that left them little choice and had little to do with justice.

" The film sort of functions as the trial that never happened, " Jarecki answers. " I tried to express the information that I collected, and I certainly didnít leave anything out, and so I think people come away with their own views. And whatever you believe about the guilt or innocence of the Friedmans, when the judge ó a sitting judge in Nassau County Supreme Court ó says in the film, ĎThere was never a doubt in my mind as to their guilt,í it tells you something. Because a judge has no business saying that when she hasnít seen the trial, she hasnít seen witnesses on both sides of the case. "

But getting back to the clowns. How does David Friedman, whose tragic and often sordid background is exposed here for all to see, expect to maintain his clown business?

" The movie opened in New York on May 30, and I think heís concerned about it, " Jarecki admits. " But by the same token, I think it was a generous thing he did to be in the film because he knew that his brother wanted the film made so his family could tell a fuller version of their story. But I think itís gotta cross his mind. "

Knowing what he knows now, would he have had Friedman entertain at his kidís birthday party?

" I have hired him, and I would hire him again. Heís criticized for being a little sarcastic, but I donít think you can criticize him for anything else. "

ó PK

If a pedophilic version of The Brothers Karamazov were hosted by Jerry Springer, or if Errol Morris were to shoot a contemporary The Crucible featuring accusations of child molestation rather than witchcraft, the result might be as unsettling as Capturing the Friedmans. First-time documentary filmmaker Andrew Jarecki (among his previous film credits is co-founding Moviefone) has taken on a lot in his debut, and his ingenuousness and audacity count among the filmís virtues. Without seeming prejudice or much constraint, he plunges himself and his audience into the unwholesome, pitiful, and frightening lives of the Friedmans, a model upper-middle-class family living in the comfortable suburban community of Great Neck, Long Island.

It isnít news that hanky-panky goes on behind respectable white picket fences, but the Friedman case is a shocker. Jarecki discloses teasing bits and pieces of the story with snippets of interviews and home movies. Eldest son David Friedman says that his father, Arnold, wasnít perfect but that what he liked about him is that he once dumped a promising science career to pursue his dream of playing music in the Catskills. Arnoldís wife, Elaine, says that Arnold liked pictures. David says that Arnold didnít like to spend time with his wife. As the comments accumulate (youngest son Jesse is also interviewed, but middle son Seth refused to participate in the film), a portrait emerges of boys bonded by a common sense of humor and enthusiasm against a wet-blanket mom. A kind of My Three Sons, except that motherís home too.

So it probably seemed to the Friedmansí neighbors until Thanksgiving 1987, when mail inspectors raided the house. It was a sting operation in which Arnold was set up to receive delivery of some hardcore kiddie porn. The search turned up more pedophilic magazines, but when they also found a list of local boys with whom Friedman had been conducting computer courses in his basement, they decided they were onto something much bigger than dirty pictures.

At this point, the film breaks into two stories, both fascinating but not necessarily complementary. Thereís the increasingly hysterical prosecution of Arnold and 18-year-old Jesse, who are accused of an astounding number of criminal acts after the police start interrogating Arnoldís students and come up with increasingly horrific and incredible allegations. Jarecki interviews the police investigators, the prosecutors, and the judge, all of whom blithely assert their confidence in a case devoid of physical evidence and based largely on testimony elicited through hypnosis. He also talks with investigative reporter Debbie Nathan, who explains how the Friedmans were one of many in the wave of dubious í80s cases of sexual molestation based on the now discredited evidence of repressed memory. In the end, though, Jareckiís approach to this issue is too timid. Given the magnitude of the apparent injustice and the grotesque abuses of power plainly evident, it seems clear he should have been more focused on uncovering the truth along the lines of Morrisís The Thin Blue Line or Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofskyís Paradise Lost.

But if the policeís capturing of the Friedmans arouses doubt and indignation, the Friedmansí capturing of themselves taps into passions less righteous. Early in the film, Jarecki shows a snippet from a videotape David had made in the midst of the case. Directly addressing the camera, David declares that this tape is being made for himself alone and then is cut off just as he erupts into a tearful confession of some sort. Itís a bit of a come-on, and thereís lots more from Davidís video library to follow. He recorded the ongoing family breakdown, with his brothers (Elaine and Arnold shun the camera) seemingly enjoying the opportunity to act out on the video stage the self-lacerations of their big fat Greek tragedy. Although these videos are hardly flattering or illuminating, he offered them to Jarecki, who made generous use of them. In the interest of what? Voyeurism, narcissism, and masochism have their appeal, but itís criminal to let them upstage truth and justice.

Issue Date: June 13 - 19, 2003
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