Capturing the Friedmans

Jul 9, 2003 at 12:00 am

The law tells us we’re innocent until proven guilty, but how does that work when the accused admits responsibility? Has anything really been proven or has the issue merely been neatly avoided? Capturing the Friedmans documents the lives — before, during and after — of the Friedman family, two of whose members are accused in a massive sex-abuse scandal stemming from computer classes taught to local kids in the family basement. The pair plead guilty in separate court appearances after a protracted trial by media, but the amount of truth to their so-called guilt is constantly questioned by director Andrew Jarecki, who interviews alleged victims, police, journalists and lawyers on his way to reopening the many shadows of doubt surrounding Arnold and Jesse Friedman’s alleged crimes.

There are five Friedmans in all: Arnold, the nebbishy dad, a high school teacher who also taught private piano and computer lessons in his home; Elaine, a screechy, repressed housewife forever at odds with her husband and sons, a woman in a house full of men; David, the eldest son who refuses to believe his father and brother could have done anything wrong, who grows up to be a professional clown; Seth, a minor character due to his refusal to actively participate in the film; and the youngest, Jesse, who at 18 is brought up on sodomy and sexual misconduct charges alongside his father.

Friedmans more than intimates that the guilty pleas of Arnold and Jesse were false. It outright tries to prove them wrong, offering up interviews with alleged victims of alleged crimes, contradictory interrogations and evidence, admissions of guilt and their subsequent denials. It’s an uncomfortable couple of hours watching Jarecki revisit the Pandora-like horror of the Friedmans’ late-1980s lives, both because of the bizarre nature of its subjects and the grotesqueness of the crimes that the two Friedmans admitted to committing in open court. Sexual abuse is no laughing matter, but there are times when that’s the only reaction possible to what Jarecki throws at us, and there are so many questions surrounding the Friedmans that it’s impossible to know which way is up.

But there are powerful images here too, images that go both ways: David, the professional clown, weeping in an excerpt from a video diary taken in the middle of the maelstrom; Jesse, exiting the court building after his plea, being screamed at by a parent, “You raped my son!”; the unbelievable shouting matches between Elaine and her sons captured on video by a family that, with seemingly so much to hide, records an awful lot of its own key moments.

The Friedmans videotaped many of their conversations, discussions and arguments (although there’s little difference between a Friedman discussion and a Friedman argument — they all end basically the same way) during the period when Arnold and Jesse are awaiting trial. They also taped the Friedman kids growing up and, back even further in time, filmed Arnold and Elaine during their early years. The amount of vintage Friedman footage is astounding. Without it, Capturing the Friedmans would be just another hour on the History Channel, a series of interviews from the present looking back on the past.

Jesse might be innocent, but Arnold is definitely guilty of something. It’s just never crystal clear what. He admits one thing and denies the next, offering up past crimes as diversions from the current ones with which he’s faced. But it’s hard to believe a man who says, “OK, I did this bad thing here, but over here where you think I did this other bad thing, I am being framed.”

Arnold flat-out admits in writing that he molested two boys during a vacation at a summer cottage, yet denies the main crimes in question that took place in his basement. It’s a gross understatement to say that Capturing the Friedmans offers more questions than answers about its subject. That’s the nature of projects such as this and when a documentary takes this route, it becomes hard to trust the filmmaker at all.

Who’s to say what Jarecki left out or what he didn’t have access to? The only people who know what really happened are Arnold and Jesse Friedman. To walk into Capturing the Friedmans hoping to turn them all into secret sharers is foolish. Jarecki is still looking for answers when he rolls his credits, and the audience’s luck isn’t any better.


Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].