by Howard Schumann
In 1987, Great Neck, Long Island, a comfortable upper middle class town, was rocked when Arnold Friedman, a respected high school teacher and his 18-year old son, Jesse were arrested on charges of molestation, rape, and sodomy against young boys to whom they taught computer classes in their basement. The documentary Capturing the Friedmans is a dark and disturbing look at the Friedman family (Arnold, sons David, Jesse, Seth and their mother Elaine) that compels us to sift through the ambiguous evidence and determine for ourselves the question of their guilt or innocence.
"It's a combination of different versions of different stories", says first-time director Andrew Jarecki, who assembled video footage filmed by eldest son David, news accounts, still photos, and his own original material, and turned it into one of the most powerful films of the year. The documentary was conceived by Mr. Jarecki after working on a piece about "Silly Billy" (David Friedman), the number one birthday clown in New York City. He found David to be a sad clown underneath the happy face and began to probe deeper, ultimately discovering the arrest, court case, and David's obsessive home videos documenting the family's deterioration.
The first glimpse we get is a video of the happy family having fun at the beach. We are soon jolted by the revelation that Arnold collects child pornography magazines. After being alerted by the postal authorities, the police search his house and find a printout of a list of students he taught computer literacy. Former students are tracked down and interviewed, and Arnold and his son Jessie are accused of committing hundreds of acts of sex with their students.
Listening to the Police Department, one might conclude that they are guilty, but as the film progresses doubts are raised about the validity of this conclusion. We are told that there was a complete lack of physical evidence, that witnesses may have been hypnotized, possibly coerced to give information and that some students denied anything ever took place. I began to question. If there was all of this going on, why didn't any child speak up or complain of a stomachache and refuse to go back? Why did they re-enroll for the advanced course? Everyone is convincing on camera but we are left scratching our heads wondering what is fantasy and what is truth.
Both Arnold and Jessie maintain their innocence, although Arnold admits to being a pedophile and molesting two boys at the family's summer home as well as his younger brother Howard. Though Arnold received a life sentence and Jesse was released after serving 13 of his 18-year sentence, it is equally plausible that they were completely innocent, somewhat innocent, or completely guilty.
While dissecting the inner workings of the family, Jarecki looks into the nature of memory and truth to such an extent that Capturing the Friedmans is an assault on our expectation of truth. We expect the case to unfold with a clear identification of the perpetrators and the victims, that some revelation of intimacy will arise from home videos of the family's unguarded moments, but our desires are never fulfilled. We are tantalized, still seeking the missing piece to the puzzle.
Though we may never know about Arnold's or Jesse's guilt or innocence, to me the family was a disaster waiting to happen, having bottled up inside of them years of anguish and guilt. At the end, I felt tremendous sadness that we do not always have the emotional strength to act in our own best interests, to admit our vulnerability to each other, or operate in a way that nurtures our capacity to love. For the Friedmans, the legacy of this failure is a stigmatized life and painful memories that will remain forever.
by Chris Dashiell
One thing I read over and over in reviews of Capturing the Friedmans is how elusive the truth is, and that we don't really know if Arnold and Jesse Friedman were guilty. That's not how I see it. I think it becomes quite evident in the film that the police went on a witch hunt and badgered a bunch of kids into finally telling them what they wanted to hear. We're talking about over a hundred counts of rape, sexual abuse and molestation. Yet there was no physical evidence, no blood on any clothing. The kids were picked up by their parents every day, and no one cried or said anything about it. Then these boys, who were supposedly being ritually sodomized in this class, go ahead and re-enroll for next year?
No, the charges only came to the surface when the police came in. And why would the police want to do this? Because Arnold Friedman was a pedophile who had been caught with child pornography. And in the minds of a lot of people, that means he's not a human being, but a monster. And once you start thinking of people as monsters, then you have to catch the monster and kill it. You see what you want to see, you find what you want to find, because the moral righteousness and the hatred blinds you to any other possibility.
But Jarecki avoids taking a stand on this, and I would guess it's from fear of a possible negative reaction from audiences. Similarly, I think one of the reasons why viewers come away from the film saying that they can't be sure of the truth, is that the stigma of pedophilia, the pall of horror that is cast over it in our society, blurs the judgment. The police are so sure. And after all, the two did plead guilty. Never mind that the tortuous process by which they decided to plead guilty is convincingly laid out in the film (the lawyers didn't believe it was possible to win in that climate), it still tends to prejudice us against them. Yet, the case judged on its merits is preposterous. Just as other sex panics like the McMartin day care case were preposterous. An atmosphere was created, and to a large extent still exists, in which sex crimes and pedophilia are so invested with holy taboo that a person is judged guilty until proven innocent. And those who are guilty of such crimes are considered to be nothing more than beasts.
Capturing the Friedmans is fascinating when it documents the meltdown of the family in the midst of all this hysteria. The home movies are just stunning. Otherwise, Jarecki seems to be pretty green as a director - using speeded up images of commuters in Great Neck and so forth, essentially as filler. But the Friedmans are so raw that it doesn't matter much. My one big complaint is that the families of the boys who brought charges are given short shrift. Maybe they didn't want to talk. But even if you believe in the Friedmans' innocence, as I do, you have to see these other families as victims too.
The central fact, in the end - that everyone is dancing around - is that Arnold Friedman was a pedophile. He was attracted to children. It seems self-evident to me that this is a sickness, and that society should direct its energies to treating this affliction as best it can, if only to stop the cycle of abuse from continuing. That doesn't mean excusing perpetration, of course, but it also doesn't mean sweeping these people under the rug as if they were just born that way and there's nothing we can do.
Tthe film shows how this fact is considered so dirty that people can't bring themselves to discuss it directly. When the lawyer, for instance, feels such overwhelming disgust after Arnold asks if they can move to a different table at the prison because he's feeling attraction to some nearby children, it doesn't seem to even occur to him that this was a healthy admission on Arnold's part. He wanted to move away because he didn't want to be attracted. In other words, this isn't something that you can just force out of your life through will-power, or god knows, something that you chose because you felt like being the scum of the earth.
What I came away with from Capturing the Friedmans was that demonizing anyone, no matter what they may have done, is damaging to all of us. With fear running the show, there's no way for us to recognize our humanity in the midst of the worst that we can be, because there's always somebody worse whom we can point at. Scapegoating someone, whether guilty or innocent, is to abdicate from the responsibility involved in having a soul.