In Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki gives (or at least attempts to give) a human face to Arnold Friedman, a Long Island school teacher accused in the late ‘80s of child molestation along with his youngest son Jesse. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the film is best approached as two separate works: an oddly riveting chronicle of one family’s devastating demise and, less successfully, an attempt to shed light on the validity of pedophile witch-hunts (the infamous McMartin trial is evoked at various points). The Friedman family’s once disturbing desire to record themselves at all times provides Jarecki with a treasure trove of archival footage, which he expertly combines with present-day interviews and TV news coverage from the time period.
The worst thing that can be said about Capturing the Friedmans from an aesthetic standpoint is that Jarecki employs a series of near deadening, literal-minded editing cues and transitional elements throughout the film: shots of children jumping into pools and, most egregious, a shot of bars on a highway overpass meant to evoke future jail-time for Arnold and Jesse. Sixty-five-year-old Howard Friedman defends his brother Arnold throughout the film and claims that they didn’t share an incestuous relationship when he was eight and Arnold was in his early teens. But when Jarecki pulls the camera back on Howard toward the end of the film and reveals that he was sitting next to his partner Jack Fallin all the time, this “outing” technique seemingly entertains that maybe Howard isn’t “all there” in the head. Deliberately or not, this scene merely cozies up to the belief that many homosexuals are victims of abuse.
Jesse’s neurotic older brother David doesn’t see their mother Elaine in a positive light, accusing her of buying into the media’s lies. But the mousy older woman is the only person who seems to negotiate the elaborate and confounding web of lies Jarecki tries to unravel. Even if Arnold and his son Jesse didn’t sodomize a group of boys inside their home over the course of several years, there’s still the matter of Arnold’s collection of child pornography and written admission that he had abused the son of a family friend. Either crucial tidbits were left on the cutting room floor or Jarecki missed the boat altogether, but what does the defensive David think about his father owning a copy of “Young Boys and Sodomy” and “Jail Bait”? Even if the existence of said pornography perpetuated false accusations of child abuse, the stack of dirty mags doesn’t erase the fact that Arnold was still interested in young boys.
Jarecki boldly addresses the notion that some victims of child abuse are really just victims of a mass conspiracy. Most interesting is the observation that parents of alleged victims are all too willing to buy into such a conspiracy because of the kind of elitism that comes with martyrdom. One of Arnold’s ex-students admits to never having seen any abuse, and both the young man and his father seem to confirm that investigators tried to deliberately railroad the Friedmans. But Jarecki seemingly loses all objectivity when he interviews one victim who describes in detail his abuse at the hands of Arnold and Jesse. The subject’s strange, fidgety behavior and the positioning of the interview throughout the film (once after a discussion on hypnosis) are clearly meant to question the young man’s authenticity. But while Jarecki walks a dangerous line or two throughout the film, it soon becomes obvious that he isn’t arguing for or against the Friedmans as much as he is chronicling a death foretold.
Though this point is never directly addressed, there’s an overwhelming sense here that the family’s near obsessive need to record themselves (sometimes in private but knowing full well that someone will see the tape) suggests a constant struggle to validate themselves via images. Capturing the Friedmans truly evokes the family unit as a machine in constant need of oiling. Jarecki avoids casting Elaine as the demon because he understands her betrayal—that she was forced to live with a man for 30 years who constantly thought of sleeping with little boys. David resents his mother for seemingly giving up on the family and thus perpetuating their demise even more. But there’s a discomfiting grace in hearing how Arnold elaborately planned his death in order to reward Jesse with a $250,000 insurance policy. In death, he doesn’t vindicate himself as much as he gives his family a chance at survival.