Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by Andrew Jarecki

With Arnold, Elaine, David, Jesse Friedman


Capturing the Friedmans

A few years ago first-time documentarian Andrew Jarecki decided to make a film about party clowns, those balloon-twisting, joke-making, costumed people you hire for your child's birthday party. New York's premier clown was (and is) David Friedman, and Jarecki began his film. And then he discovered that David and his family had a much more interesting and important story to tell, and were willing to tell it in public. That story is what "Capturing the Friedmans" is about.

David is one of three grown sons of Arnold and Elaine Friedman, of Great Neck, Long Island. Arnold was a popular high-school science teacher, who in the 1980s taught computer classes to children in the basement of his home. He also taught piano there, and early in life had been a band leader with bookings as big as Roseland. But in 1987 the U.S. Postal Service found that he had been ordering male child pornography magazines from abroad (a crime) and trading them with others. His house was raided and he was charged with possession. And then there was more: the Nassau County Sex Crimes Unit began questioning the boys whom Arnold taught, and came up with accusations of more than 100 episodes of child sexual abuse, that supposedly occurred during the classes and lessons. And still more: Arnold's son Jesse, then 18, was accused of participating in these sex acts with his father, and charged with more than 200 separate crimes.

How do we know this? In part because the case was notorious at the time; but also in part because the Friedmans were constant and compulsive videographers of their life and family activities. And when the case blew up, they - particularly David - continued to tape just about everything that happened within the family, including their most agonizing confrontations. Jarecki was given permission to use this footage, along with his own, and it makes for one of the most powerful experiences that film can give us.

What we see are two parallel stories - the family's and the police's. The police, it is apparent, used interrogation techniques on the children who took the classes that would never be allowed today; they led them, lied to them, threatened them and bribed them into making accusations that even the Marquis de Sade could not have done. There was never any physical evidence sought nor presented - no semen or blood or other sign of a crime. At the same time, the family - with the exception of Elaine - rallies around Arnold, denying everything and planning their defense. The stories meet when Arnold pleads guilty to the pornography charges and is sentenced to federal prison in Wisconsin. Jesse, though, was prosecuted by New York State for 241 sex offenses.

A number of things seem obvious: First, that Arnold was a secret pedophile, something he hid from his wife Elaine behind a screen of passive silence. He seems willfully invisible, never talking, never admitting, never speaking up for himself; and perhaps more important, never speaking up for Jesse. Second, that he and Jesse - particularly Jesse - were egregiously overcharged by the prosecutors, who took advantage of the ongoing hysteria over sex crimes against children. It appears that the one most hurt by all of the events is Jesse, who ultimately took a plea bargain before trial and actually served eleven years at Dannemorra. Elaine, who seems to be the only family member to have grown at all through the crisis, ultimately divorced Arnold and made a new life for herself. Arnold, ever the coward, committed suicide in prison. David, clinging to his conviction that neither Arnold nor Jesse were guilty, is still enraged at the police misconduct; he films himself debating and agonizing over all the questions. The third son, Seth, refused to participate in the film and is barely seen in the family footage.

The family hired sex-crimes authority Debbie Nathan, who is interviewed in the film -- as are the detectives and the judge -- and is perhaps the only voice of reason and sanity in this Rashomon-like crisis of crimes, actual and fantasized. The film's title, with its double meaning, underlines that. Unlike television crime shows, there is no pat answer nor solution. Zarecki has presented a family and its secrets, shown us as much as any outsider can see, and left it to us to sort out the truth, or truths, whatever they may be.