Capturing the Friedmans
2003, NR, 107 min. Directed by Andrew Jarecki.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 27, 2003
It’s often said that behind the greasepaint smile and comic antics of every clown there lies the soul of a sad, anguished human being. Indeed, this folk observation may be the only truth we know for certain by the end of this riveting and perplexing new documentary. So abundant are the aspects and side stories attached to this movie that it is hard to know where to begin when describing it, and you’ll find yourself still sorting through the film’s various threads long after the theatre lights come up. Yet these complications, nuances, and contradictory truths are exactly what make Capturing the Friedmans such fascinating material. Ultimately, the movie’s quest for the truth underlying its particular story becomes a metacritical debate about how we can actually recognize truth when we see it or hear it. Like the clown’s make-up, appearances may deceive – and, furthermore, how do we explain all the children who react with fright rather than laughter to the clown’s visage? In Capturing the Friedmans, first-time feature filmmaker Andrew Jarecki has made a movie so powerful that the rest of his career might suffer from having started at its pinnacle. (It’s of interest to note that prior to his segue into filmmaking, Jarecki was the founder and CEO of Moviefone, and also co-wrote and performed the theme song for the TV show Felicity.) Jarecki started out to make a documentary movie about New York City’s top children’s party entertainer, clown David Friedman. But, over the course of interviewing, another story began to emerge – a disturbing, creepy, and altogether antithetical saga. David is the eldest of the three sons of Arnold and Edith Friedman, who grew up in the prosperous Long Island suburb of Great Neck. Part of a seemingly typical middle-class Jewish family (if home movies are to be trusted), David’s father and brother were the subjects of one of New York’s most infamous scandals of the late Eighties. His father, Arnold Friedman, and brother Jesse had been charged in 1986 with hundreds of counts of child molestation, and later convicted and imprisoned for the crimes. Arnold, who had been a respected schoolteacher who taught after-school computer classes in his basement with the assistance of his youngest son Jesse, had been surprised by a pre-Thanksgiving police raid on his home that resulted in the confiscation of a hidden cache of male child pornography. (The Friedman raid was the result of a postal inspection that targeted the senders of the pornography.) As detectives built their case they questioned the Friedmans’ computer students, who suddenly started to come forth with allegations of rape and molestation during the classes in the basement. Charges mushroomed and grew more and more outrageous and satanic in nature. Was this admitted collector of kiddie porn indeed a rapist? Was there a mounting hysteria not unlike that in the McMartin Preschool case which also occurred around this time? Jarecki skillfully builds this narrative, revealing pieces of the puzzle bit by bit. In this he is also aided by the extraordinary amount of home video and Super-8 footage that the boys and their father shot of themselves. Their compulsion to film themselves goes way beyond the excesses of the average shutterbug: They turn the camera on and leave it running throughout the day, recording intimate conversations, entire Passover Seders, riding in the car running errands. This collection of family footage provides startling documentation that reveals everything and nothing all at once. Jarecki weaves this home footage among his interviews with the various detectives, victims, experts, and family members – all of whom toss their personal spin into the mix. By the end of the movie, it’s no longer possible to know anything with certainty – so convoluted, contradictory, pathological, and long ago have the events become. It’s a movie that will have you talking and thinking for hours.