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.