The First Casualty is the Truth | Capturing the Friedmans at 15

It was my last film screening in my first year of college. Exams and deadlines were just around the corner. The last thing I needed was a documentary about father and son paedophiles. But, there I was.

Now here I am nearly four years to the day, writing about it. Funny how that works huh? You know what’s not funny? Capturing the Friedmans. That’s what.

If I’m going to watch a film that’s extreme in some way, whether in its subject matter or in the way it was made, I’ll usually know about it beforehand. Films like Natural Born Killers, Martyrs or Irréversible benefit from foresight. You’re acknowledging what you’re going to watch and knowing about it prepares you in some way for what’s about to happen – even if it doesn’t really mitigate the shock factor.

With Capturing the Friedmans I had no idea what I was getting. I kind of regret it.


In 2003, Andrew Jarecki was making a short documentary about New York City clowns. In interviewing one of the better-known entertainers, Silly Billy (known to his friends and family as David Friedman) the director found something even more fascinating.

Jarecki’s research into Friedman uncovered the investigation that had sent David’s father and brother Arnold and Jesse Friedman to prison in the late 1980s. Jarecki dug deeper with David granting him access to the archive of home videos documenting the period. Jarecki interviewed the other Friedmans as well as investigators, lawyers and the children Arnold and Jesse had allegedly abused.

The Horror

One image from Capturing the Friedmans will stay with me forever. It’s only a couple of seconds and it’s really just filler between the archive footage and talking heads. However, the horror of it isn’t something you can understate.

Video footage either taken from the case itself, another case entirely or some perverted stock footage archive shows rows and rows of magazines. Porn magazines. Child porn magazines.

I’ve seen my share of messed up stuff in all the years I’ve been watching films but never something like that. Even though its out of focus and poor quality the implication is enough and may even be worse. It’s worse than anything I’ve seen in any horror movie.

Speaking of horror movies Capturing the Friedmans runs like one. Only it’s like watching people live one rather than act in one. Both Arnold and Jesse were eventually convicted on multiple counts of sodomy and sexual abuse committed against minors. They were the villains when I watched it four years ago and to my mind they remain the villains now.

The victims include not just those Arnold and Jesse abused but the other Friedmans. David, as of Jesse’s release, was not on speaking terms with his brother. Elaine Friedman – Arnold’s wife and Jesse’s mother – staunchly supported her son despite the furious arguments caught on tape by her husband. Yet it’s these divisions and alliances that enhance the film’s ambiguity and make it such a captivating and disturbing watch.

Capturing the Friedmans -
David Friedman Source


The investigation into Arnold Friedman began in 1987 when police discovered child pornography magazines in his mail. An investigation began in secret and it was soon discovered that Arnold and Jesse taught a youth computer class in the family home in Great Neck, New York.

Throughout Capturing the Friedmans, the now mostly grown up victims discuss the acts committed on them. Some seem realistic. Others sound borderline impossible. All are appalling whether believable or not.

What’s strange is the kind of detached tone all of these acts are described in – as if these kids were trained how to talk about them. It adds credence to the theory that the police and FBI were caught up in the moral panic of the 1980s and weren’t diligent enough when it came to due process. With that said Andrew Jarecki did his best to subtly influence his documentary as leaning towards the Friedmans rather than indict them.

The Aftermath

In 2010 Jesse Friedman’s case came close to being re-examined after his release in 2001.

In 2013 the District Attorney released the results of its investigation but instead of vindicating Jesse, it enshrined his guilt in stone. A psychiatrist hired by his defence team described Jesse as a narcissist and a psychopathic deviant. On the flip side the DA stated that investigators had been portrayed unfairly in Capturing the Friedmans. Other witnesses complained about coaching and coercion by the investigators.

The truth is subjective and the innocence or guilt of the Friedmans will likely never be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Capturing the Friedmans -
Jesse and Arnold Friedman Source


There are many that probably think the Friedmans are innocent. I don’t. I think they’re despicable. I thought the same of Sea World in Blackfish. I thought the same of Shirley Turner in Dear Zachary, A Letter to a Son About His Father.

But that’s what documentaries do. They’re there to be argued over and to make arguments. Not to declare that their subject is the one true truth. Often in Michael Moore’s documentaries like Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11, they function as opinion pieces. Subjective snapshots designed to appeal to bleeding hearts.

We accept the truth we want to see in the world. If that’s seeing a child molester punished or an innocent man walk free then the documentary has done its job.

Jarecki went above and beyond his job. When Jesse Friedman launched his appeal to have his case reinvestigated Andrew Jarecki funded the appeal.

Jarecki always believed in the Friedmans’ innocence but chose not to pursue this angle instead leaving enough discrepancies and subjective edits in to screw with viewers. It didn’t do much good when Arnold Friedman killed himself in prison in 1995 and it actively worked against Jesse’s appeal in the end.

I’ll probably always remember that hot summer afternoon in UCD. I remember feeling my face and stomach twist in disgust. I remember the quiet sniffles of some of my classmates. Most of all I remember the misery of the film. From its grim subject matter to its grim subjects Capturing the Friedmans weighs on the shoulders and soul even fifteen years after its completion.

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  1. oh_but_no says

    Did we watch the same film?

    First off, David and Jesse are on speaking terms. The former picked up the latter when he was released from prison. There is a third brother who did not participate in the documentary.

    Secondly, Jesse clearly is guilty of NOTHING, except perhaps not being sympathetic to his father’s victims (real and made-up).

    And lastly, the rows and rows of child porn magazines that so horrified you obviously didn’t belong to the Friedmans.

    For your own sake, please watch the doc again without the blinders.

    1. Emodi Kann says

      You need to read about the massive amount of evidence that was NOT included in the film. There was government funding behind the film to slander the testimony of the children and motives of local law enforcement; as well as a CIA quack doing the same. Just like in the film Buried, the mother launched a whole movement with CIA quacks to attack victims with recovered memories. Pedophilia/incest is rife throughout society, especially with the lockdowns and increased isolation. And, as this case illustrates, the abused grow up to abuse others.

  2. Phreelee says

    Arnold Friedman killed himself BEFORE the doc was even completed

  3. Wis Byron says

    Just watched this for the first time today and I share your discomfort at it. I do think the Mother was long-suffering and completely disrespected by her rationalizing, delusional sons.

    1. Karen says

      Yes, it seemed like a bit of misogyny going on with those boys. And what about the stuff they will not discuss? What did that mean?

  4. Dgbee says

    Too much manipulation by the film maker. He knows the truth but hides it for the resulting effect of making you, the viewer, potentially sympathetic towards violent child sex offenders while blaming the police for the same thing–deliberately manipulating evidence to gain convictions that can only satisfy their blood lust. Jesse seams at once too innocent and incapable of such acts. But look at his treatment of his mother, swearing as he does–no love–pure mad deviant behavior. None of the boys appears to have a girlfriend. OK. But how many girls attended the computer class? Hmmm. OK. This of course is all circumstantial and probably ignored for reasons Jarecki deems irrelevant. Rape, as everyone is taught, is not a crime of passion, but of violence and hate. And so is child rape. These MEN enjoyed their power. Uncle Howard has confessed to investigators that Arnold told him just before leaving to prison that he and Jesse had done bad things with children. Jarecki had coached him and deliberately left out the clear and unimpeachable confession. Of course they could all be a bunch of lunatics, I suppose.

    1. Karen says

      I do think there was a bit of misogyny going on with those guys. SMH.

    2. PoliticiansAreCorruptThieves says

      Not a single ounce of you bloviating has anything to do with the FACTS of this case OR even the documentary. The stupidity of accusing the filmmaker of having any reason to lie about his work is about the dumbest thing I ever heard.

  5. Who.cares says

    The way the sons relentlessly defended their father with no room for even the slightest rational or opposing thought, the way they sided with the abuser and not their devastated and distraught mother who seemed to me to be the only rational one in the room most days, to me, perfectly fits the way someone that has been heavily groomed their whole life would act. I truly believe Jesse initially started out as a victim and then lost his ability to claim such when he inflicted the same pain on other children. The only person I feel sorry for is Mrs. Friedman, and Arnold’s brother. The fact that the director obviously tried to swing this one way bothered me. I don’t believe either are innocent.

  6. Jean says

    Very interesting is a video posted on YouTube called “What Was Left Out? A Critique of “Capturing the Friedmans” . The filmmakers purposely chose to ignore several damning pieces of evidence including Jesse’s confession to Geraldo Rivera.

    1. PoliticiansAreCorruptThieves says

      You’re deliberatly clueless and fact free. NO that story Jesse told Geraldo was covered in DEPTH in the film for chrissakes. He decided to plead guilty and get the reduced sentence because the CORRUPT JUDGE said she KNEW HE WAS GUILTY before even hearing the case and would give him concurrent sentences which means he’d be in for LIFE. WTF film were you watching/??? Do you speak English. Low IQ? THERE WASN’T A DROP OF EVIDENCE TO BACK UP THE GERALDO INTERVIEW NOT EVEN A SINGLE PHOTO OR KID’S TESTIMONY. Furthermore, the film SHOWS YOU the prosecution LYING about porn being all over the house then shows you pics where it was spotless with no porn. The porn was hidden behind a piano in the basement.

  7. PoliticiansAreCorruptThieves says

    You’re disgusting. Also UNFACTUAL. In 2018 you write this and DELIBERATELY ignore ALL the evidence pointing to their innocence including all the so-called “victims” recanting which you don’t even MENTION. So YES the first casualty is your false portrayal. Then again, I’m not surprised. I could tell from your spelling you’re not American and from the UK. The Liberal s-hole that arrested CHILDREN for “hurting feelings” and arrested politicians for quoting Churchill.

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