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Capturing The Friedmans (NR)
Magnolia Pictures
Official Site
Director: Andrew Jarecki
Producers: Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling
Cast: Arnold, Elaine, Jesse, David Friedman

Rating: out of 5

On the surface, Capturing The Friedmans concerns the weighty subject matter of pedophilia and a squabbling family torn asunder. But itís really a film about manipulated memories and human ugliness, and while these topics taken as a whole may seem gruesome or maybe even mundane, woven together, itís a brilliant piece of work. The final product is one of the most provocative documentaries Iíve seen in a long time.

Whatís more amazing still, Capturing The Friedmans is not the film

Andrew Jarecki initially set out to make. While gathering footage for a documentary about birthday party clowns in the New York area, one subject in particular made curious references to his life. David Friedman was not just a typical clown, but a clown with a past, and after interviewing him, Jarecki recognized he had stumbled upon a strange and complex story more fascinating than his original material.

In the late 1980s the Friedman family could only be described as the perfect normal American family. David Friedmanís father Alan was a popular teacher who taught computer science classes both at the local high school and from his home. He also seemed happily married to his wife Elaine, whom he lived with in a nice suburban home on Long Island along with their three sons, David, Seth, and Jesse.

But after Alan was busted for receiving child porn through the mail, the familyís life quickly unraveled. The police launched an investigation and would later accuse Alan and the youngest son, Jesse, of multiple counts of sodomy and sexual abuse of children.

Did they do it? Were their ďvictimsĒ telling the truth? What exactly happened in those afternoon computer classes? The evidence goes all sorts of directions and the subsequent family nightmare becomes a riveting story filled with open contradictions and lies. Here Jarecki shows himself to be an adroit, no-nonsense filmmaker. He hones in on the relevant facts and expertly cuts to the heart of the matter. In so doing, Jarecki challenges the audience to separate facts from motivations and lies from the truth. In some instances the truth is obvious, but in other instances it is less so.

But thatís only one reason why this documentary so gripping. What adds to this train wreck of a story is the Friedman family attachment to their video camera. When most of us thought owning a Polaroid instant camera was a high-tech novelty, the Friedmans were avid filmmakers, busy capturing family birthday parties and vacations at the beach. But they never seemed to turn the camera off, and at the height of the sex abuse accusations, the Friedmans keep the camera rolling. We see them glumly making Passover Seder toasts around the family dinner table as they weigh the various legal options, and we see them in the kitchen yelling at each other on the night before Alan and Jesse will be sentenced to prison.

Itís like being given permission to run around the freak show circus and openly stare at the spectacle. Indeed, with Capturing The Friedmans the viewers suddenly find themselves voyeurs to the most intimate and harrowing moments of other peoplesí lives. And yet thereís something more unnerving in our fascination with such perverse moments. I suspect it probably has something to do with how most of us can identify with the family bickering. Sure, a family ripped apart by a pedophilia scandal is not a typical event, but when watching the Friedman family fights, to varying degrees, we recognize our own skeletons in the closet. How ugly would my own life look if someone had chanced to turn on a video camera during a family argument? Itís this painful identification that draws us to the Friedmans more than it repels us. Each us probably has more in common with them than we would ever care to admit. Ultimately watching Capturing The Friedmans is less a freak show spectacle than it is holding up a mirror to our own pasts.

--Nancy Semin


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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