Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (2003) is a stunning piece of documentary journalism that is particularly memorable for following through in its act of walking the tight rope of impartiality. Unlike Errol Morris’s equally wonderful The Thin Blue Line (1988), which combines noir, documentary, and dark comedy into a thought provoking and infuriating defense of convicted (yet innocent) murderer Randall Dale Adams, Jarecki’s film does not attempt to exonerate Arnold Friedman, a high school science teacher who gave computer lessons in his free time, of sexual child abuse. When the film begins we feel a gaze much like Morris’s; the Friedmans are an eccentric family: throughout the accusations, trial, and sentencing, one of Arnold’s children, birthday clown David Friedman, filmed the family. Jarecki’s documentary consists of interviews and David’s original footage. We begin the film, after discovering that federal officials were drawn to Arnold after monitoring his mail for an order of child pornography, thinking he is guilty: case closed. Yet, Jarecki uses the documentary form to make us realize that no matter how horrible the circumstantial evidence is, we can never really say for sure if Arnold Friedman harmed his computer lesson students.
After discovering Arnold’s child pornography collection, the police officers of Great Neck, New York began to track down his students, concerned that abuse had occurred in the classroom. During these interviews, some of Arnold’s students stated that their instructor played bizarre sex games with them. These accusations gradually snowball and we, again, find that Arnold Friedman may very well be guilty. Yet, shortly after establishing that Arnold is probably guilty, Jarecki allows doubt to begin seep into the edges of the frame. Contrary statements arise from the students. Some allege that the abuse occurred in front of the other students while other students speak at length at how great a teacher Arnold Friedman was. Secondly, there is no physical evidence of abuse. If a handful of children had been abused on a weekly basis, wouldn’t there be some sort of physical evidence? Also, why would the students keep coming back? Why wouldn’t one student say anything about it until the police knocked on their door? Third, Arnold’s family was present in the house during the lessons. None of the abuse was captured on David’s videotapes and no one noticed any screaming or yelling from the basement. His son Jesse is also accused of abuse and the two of them are put on trial.
Jarecki’s threads of doubt take the form not of lying, demonic children trying to lash out at an older man but of a city scared into a witch hunt after Arnold’s child pornography collection was discovered. The statements from some of the Great Neck residents are chilling and many of them are more than willing to make the leap from Arnold Friedman, child porn connoisseur, to Arnold and Jesse Friedman, child rapists. It’s fairly clear that Arnold has issues, but does that make him a rapist? As the trial ramps up, the Friedmans’s lawyer, Peter Panaro, encourages Arnold to plead guilty, hoping to spare Jesse from any prison time. Moreover, Panaro encouraged Jesse to both accuse his father of molestation and to also plead guilty, under the logic that the plea would bring leniency. This logic begins to shatter the family: the matriarch, Elaine, believes Arnold to be guilty of molestation while the children stand united against her, accusing the police and the city of railroading the two of them because of the taboo attached to the crime. When Arnold and Jesse are both sentenced to prison (Jesse would serve 13 years while Arnold would die in prison at his own hand, leaving Jesse a large life insurance benefit for his troubles), they quickly recant their confessions, lashing out at their lawyer.
Once again, Jarecki sows the seeds that Arnold may be guilty. Why would he confess with no physical evidence being offered against him, especially in the light of the contradictory statements being made by his students? Moreover, Friedman admitted later that at age 13 he had sex with his 8 year old brother, Harold. Between his possession of child pornography, plea, and later confession, even the lack of physical evidence begins to make the case against Arnold stronger and stronger. Yet, Harold admits that he cannot remember being raped by Arnold and offers nothing but glowing memories of the deceased Arnold. Jarecki never allows us to feel confident in reading Arnold either way. He certainly didn’t help himself when it came to his behavior preceding, during, and following the trial and sentencing, nor did Jesse (who is the only subject that Jarecki seems to want to exonerate, guilty because of association, a form of collateral damage).
I find Capturing the Friedmans, now on Netflix Watch Instantly, to be essential viewing, particularly in the light of the Casey Anthony trial. It’s a thought provoking account of the different evidence offered up in both legal proceedings and the media during a trial centered around a heinous act. Moreover, the film delves into the different guiding philosophies behind the prosecution and the defense of a criminal trial. Finally, it’s an account at how evidence functions in the documentary. Who do we give testimonial clout to? How does editing shape the way in which we perceive the documentary subject? The film functions perfectly on so many different levels (as a filmic train-wreck of an eccentric family, an investigation of the American legal system, a self-reflexive exercise in documentary filmmaking, and a critique of American mob mentality) that, despite the discomfort brought by the subject matter, it is endlessly watchable.