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Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)


    Andrew Jarecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans, a lurid Sundance award winner, features footage of a wildly dysfunctional clan that fortuitously (for the sake of the film) records their private spats for posterity, offering the audience an almost unprecedented, ethically questionable look at a real, live familial meltdown. Since the family in question has two members that are on trial for child molestation, tensions run high and tempers are short, making the footage sensational. Even though Capturing is built around the inclusion of those recordings, it almost leaves the household’s need to document their own lives and turn themselves into media images totally unexamined. There's a brief speculation by one of the sons that the act of filming his family's meltdown might have made experiencing them seem less real, but they're still unwelcome in the same way that Michael Moore’s inclusion of footage of the actual Columbine murders in Bowling For Columbine was. Even though the family’s self-fulfilling desire to be stars is the most sickly fascinating aspect of the film, seeing it come to fruition in this way is nearly nauseating. The family obviously consented for Jarecki to use the footage. Presumably it was in hopes of somehow exonerating themselves from the negative media scorn they’d received. Coming to terms with their decision to give even more of themselves over to the public seems inherent to understanding how they tick, but the fundamental reasons of why they are willing to help Jarecki remain cloudy. Since the criminal proceedings pushed the family’s private sexual behavior into the public domain, perhaps there exists in them a feeling that no further violation could be inflicted upon their privacy, or maybe the impulse arises out of their desire to show the world that they have suffered too. Whatever the case, the footage doesn’t do much to further understanding of the family and seems to exist mostly to satisfy a voyeuristic demand in audience members that might feel that the crusade for truth and justice entitles them to full access to the lives of those affected when a crime is committed.


    Intercut throughout the home video segments (which were filmed prior to 1988) are snippets of interviews that Jarecki conducted more recently with the authorities involved in the case, the Friedmans themselves, and a few of the victims of the crimes. As the conflicting stories play against each other, it becomes obvious that many are lying about, or at least remembering incorrectly, the events that took place. A colleague of mine likened Jarecki’s approach to Rashomon, in which a series of witnesses give different accounts about a murder, but I think that Friedmans has less to say about the nature of perspective than Kurosawa’s film because it lacks a controlled presence like Kurosawa behind the lens. Jarecki is at least as interested in building twists into his tale as he is in seeking out truth, but in order to do that, he has to smudge the facts. His entire aesthetic and narrative structure seem built around willful deception, precisely so he can make it almost impossible accept anything with certainty. When he temporarily withholds information from the audience such as the sexuality of father/pedophile Arnold’s brother Howard (to either suggest he’s gay because he’s been molested as a child or, worse yet, to suggest he’s untrustworthy somehow because he’s gay) or the profession of Arnold’s son David (a clown for children’s parties) until it can have maximum shock value, it cheapens the enterprise immeasurably. This results in a thoroughly unpleasant look at an unfortunate circumstance without much benefit of enlightenment.


    Remarkable as the presence of such footage is, watching the Friedmans as they bicker doesn’t do much to explain the film's central questions, so it feels somewhat pointless for the director to take that approach. Jarecki alludes to a dubious questioning process on the part of the police during the initial investigation (easier to show them as scapegoats, I guess…), but never presents evidence of those actual testimonies that might confirm or deny those claims. In doing this, he simultaneously undermines the idea that he's attempting to give a comprehensive look at the case and in doing that, eliminates the best defense as to why he's included the home videos. When the camera finally leaves the home, it’s almost absurd that more energy is spent damning the appropriately concerned parents of the molested children than skewering the admitted molester. Such a stance might seem provocative or appear “fair” to someone distanced from the situation, but to those involved in it that aren't named Friedman, it must seem disgusting. Since Jarecki can’t prove the innocence of the admitted pedophile Arnold, when he lends screen time to those who suggest mass hysteria is the main culprit behind the charges, it seems an affront to Arnold’s victims. Even if, as Arnold claims to his wife, there were only infrequent bouts of molestation, the real tragedy is that his Great Neck community got torn apart during the witch-hunt. Ironically, Jarecki frequently suggests that society is the villain of the piece, not only by signifying one should fear their neighbors and including mocking shots of handsomely manicured lawns, but also by ridiculing the town’s attempts to mobilize as one to deal with the crisis. The lack of attention paid to the non-Friedman families that were surely torn apart by this tragedy feels inappropriate but is indicative of the film's general apathy toward most of this incident's victims. The innocent Friedmans are not contemptuous, but the child victims, the confused parents, and the people who weren't involved in this mess, but still have to live in the devastated Great Neck, are just as worthy of Jarecki’s attention as the Friedmans. Largely ignoring them is a grievous crime of omission.


    What scant bits of information that Capturing does include about the victimization of the children is inadequate to allow the filmmaker to ask the audience to begin making judgments about these people, so the idea that truth is an issue at all seems absurd. The interviews with alleged victims are so inanely glib that it’s tough to imagine they're indicative of the average witness or even piece together the details of the alleged molestations. When compared with the slobbering attention Jarecki pays to every detail of the initial discovery of kiddie porn in the Friedman house, his examination of the heinous allegations that ended up jailing both father and son comes up short. When Jarecki is essentially forced into revealing Arnold’s admissions of wrongdoing, and the film shifts attention to the question Jesse’s innocence alone, much of the previous speculation and conspiracy theory is rendered moot. It’s poor, beleaguered, willfully blind mother Elaine that seems the most believable throughout. During her interview, she seems so traumatized and exhausted by the ordeal that she seems to have been stripped of every defense mechanism, including deceit. When this unfortunate series of incidents essentially frees her from her family, the film offers its only glimmer of hope. Otherwise, it seems to exist mostly to destroy faith in the legal system and encourage the audience to distrust their communities. The fictionalized HBO movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial dealt with similar material yet was infinitely more moving to me, perhaps because my concerns about that film's treatment of the victims weren’t as acute. Despite the title of this film, due to the lack of insight into the bigger picture surrounding their case, the Friedmans remain elusive when the film has ended. Obviously easy answers aren't desirable here, but what we get instead of answers is less an examination of the unknowable truth than a document that, much like the denial-stricken members of the Friedman clan, seems to have become so clouded by bias that it refuses to look for the truths in front of it. 


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Jeremy Heilman