A review of “Capturing the Friedmans” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ****

Rating: Unrated, but should be R for extremely adult themes

Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

 

 

          Fledgling director Andrew Jarecki knew a good thing when it fell into his lap.  Determined that his documentary debut evolve as an easy, light-subject study of children’s party clowns, Jarecki instead stumbled on a searing domestic witch-hunt that tore a suburban American family to shreds.  Talk about getting more than you bargained for.     

The Friedman family of Great Neck, New York seemed to have it all. Arnold was an altruistic dad and popular science teacher who taught home computer classes. His wife Elaine was a loving (albeit eccentric) stay-at-home mom, tending to David, Seth, and Jesse, their three artistically-inclined boys.                

Lift up the suburban household stone to find the squirming depravity beneath.  As the Friedmans gather around the table for a traditional Thanksgiving meal in November of 1987, the police arrive, battering down the door and flashing a search warrant, ostensibly searching for child pornography.

          Which they find in droves, hidden in the basement and behind the family piano.  Perhaps even more shocking is the arrest of Arthur and his 18-year old son Jesse, accused of sodomizing a host of young boys during their weekly computer class.

          As the investigation unfolds and the shocking crimes are graphically detailed, dread mounts.  Even as the Friedmans steadfastly maintain their innocence, the community virtually hangs them with accusations and rage. Witnesses come forward, fueling the media scandal and whipping the facts into a frenzy of mass sexual hysteria.

          “Capturing the Friedmans” would be a tragic tour-de-force as a straightforward narrative documentary. Coincidentally, the Friedmans themselves were pathological camcorder-ists, resulting in substantial video archives of an innocuous daily existence cum painfully private journal of the events leading up to and including the bitter turn-of-events.  Jarecki smoothly utilizes this footage, cutting it with interviews with the alleged victims, news broadcasts, and poignant black humor.

Jarecki’s most brilliant move is shading his visceral drama with an aura of ambiguity that is psychologically haunting.  Does Arnold Friedman’s startling confession of a penchant for pedophilia justify a tangled web of legal misconduct? With no physical evidence available, and testimony and private deliberations that mix like oil and water, the question is: wherein lies the Truth? “Freidmans”, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is disturbing and deleterious cinema.