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.
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.
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.
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.
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.