The truth is not only stranger than fiction but frequently indistinguishable from it in Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans," a startling documentary that takes the widely publicized child molestation case of the 1980s and works it into a stirring examination of truth at odds with perception, the high price of privacy in the media era and the blinding veil of blood ties.

The truth is not only stranger than fiction but frequently indistinguishable from it in Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans,” a startling documentary that takes the widely publicized child molestation case of the 1980s and works it into a stirring examination of truth at odds with perception, the high price of privacy in the media era and the blinding veil of blood ties. Winner of the Sundance grand jury prize for documentary film is an incredibly tough, uncompromising piece that showcases a densely perverse world and doesn’t easily let go. Imminently controversial pic seems a natural for wider theatrical exposure, though sensitive subject matter will require a careful marketing campaign.

This is the story of the Friedmans — husband Arnold, wife Elaine and sons David, Seth and Jesse — an upper middle-class Jewish family living comfortably and rather anonymously in Long Island.

No one has any cause to think ill of Arnold Friedman, an acclaimed and well-liked schoolteacher, or of the after-school computer classes he teaches from a basement room in his family’s home. Until, that is, the day before Thanksgiving in 1987, when a barrage of police, tipped off to Friedman’s participation in the illegal mailing and receiving of child pornography, raid the Friedman home and allegedly uncover large stashes of similarly pornographic material, arresting Arnold in the process.

But this family holiday gone awry is merely the beginning of a decade-long ordeal, the first stone cast in a rippling pool of increasingly salacious innuendo and accusation that would culminate in the rupture of a family already precariously balanced on the precipice of dysfunction.

Bolstered by their discoveries, the police and special sex-crimes investigators interrogate Arnold’s computer students, only to emerge with a seemingly outlandish litany of charges — hundreds of them –implicating not only Arnold but Jesse too, in sex crimes against minors.

As in the similar McMartin preschool case, there exists no real physical evidence against Arnold or Jesse, just the solicited testimonies of impressionable youths obtained under some highly questionable circumstances.

Yet, as their trial date draws near, it seems increasingly likely that one or both will be found guilty: By this point, the case has already been tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, with incessant media coverage ballyhooing the explicit (but as-yet-unproven) charges.

Were this a fictionalized Hollywood version of events, here’s where you might rightfully expect some noble legal crusader — a ballsy, Erin Brockovich type — to enter into the picture and put all of the Friedmans’ broken pieces back together again, to reveal (as in the McMartin case) that the Friedmans were themselves the victims of a vicious character-assassination campaign. But in the case of the Friedmans, nothing is so black-and-white.

In finally doing so, Jarecki tells the Friedmans’ story in terms that many (if not most) filmmakers would find inconceivably ambiguous. Incorporating new interviews of the surviving family members (save for middle son Seth, who declined to participate) and original investigators, together with archival news footage, Jarecki lets the Friedmans take us deep inside their own story, into the minutiae of the police investigation and through Arnold’s admission (while continuing to deny the charges against him) of a nearly lifelong obsession with young boys.

Along the way, there are so many blindsiding turns of events, so many confessions, false confessions and contradictory testimonies, that the very idea of absolute truth becomes diluted into a milky miasma.

When Elaine Friedman stares gravely into Jarecki’s camera, early on, and says, “I can’t say too much about it; we were a family,” “Capturing the Friedmans” gets its hooks in you. By pic’s end, as Jesse Friedman breaks down in court, and you’re not sure if he’s crying because he’s telling the truth or because he’s lying and can’t begin to fathom all the reasons that have brought him to do so, there’s a kind of rawness on the screen that most movies never approach.

But even more astounding than the family’s uninhibited participation — the Friedmans have a compulsive desire to tell their stories — are the hours upon hours of home movies to which Jarecki has been granted access, some of which show the Friedmans in ostensibly happier times, but most of which capture their moment-by-moment self-destruction in the penultimate days of their legal battle.

The Friedmans are irresistibly drawn, even in their darkest hour, to recording their lives — for posterity or for narcissistic pleasure — on videotape.

Jarecki (who as a sometimes musician and former CEO of Moviefone.com may have the most unlikely background of any director at Sundance this year) proves a smart, assured, unsentimental documentarian who never sides with any one interpretation of events, never stops reminding us of Arnold Friedman’s past transgressions.

He has us pity the implosion (and, at times, self-immolation) of the Friedmans without ever once asking us to forgive the heinous nature of Arnold’s and Jesse’s possibly real, possibly imagined crimes. By remaining so resolutely objective, Jarecki forces us to put ourselves in the Friedmans’ position and ponder how there, but for the grace of God, might we go.

Capturing the Friedmans

Production

A Hit the Ground Running Films presentation. Produced by Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling. Directed by Andrew Jarecki.

Crew

Camera (Duart color), Adolfo Doring; additional camera, Marc Smerling, Rosanna Rizzo, Aaron Phillips, Brian Jackson, Charlie Beyer; editor, Richard Hankin; music, Andrea Morricone; sound, John Gurrin; additional sound, Desiree Ortiz, Nathan Crooker; associate producer, Jennifer Rogen. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Competition), Jan. 17, 2003. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Arnold Friedman, Elaine Friedman, David Friedman, Seth Friedman, Jesse Friedman, Howard Friedman, John McDermott, Detective Frances Galasso, Anthony Sgueglia, Joseph Onorato, Judd Maltin, Judge Abbey Boklan, Ron Georgalis, Scott Banks, Debbie Nathan, Jerry Bernstein, Peter Panaro, Lloyd Doppman, Jack Fallin.
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