The haunted family at the center of Capturing the Friedmans lives in the upscale, leafy Long Island suburb of Great Neck. But, plagued by their own denial and deception, they seem trapped in Dysfunction Junction. Andrew Jarecki's wrenching documentary, which won a prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, provides an intimate glimpse of a household in freefall. That intimacy is so startling, in fact, that viewers might experience a discomfiting sense of voyeurism.
The picture, now playing at the Roxy in Burlington, chronicles a criminal case that first makes headlines in the late 1980s. The media frenzy whips up community hysteria when Arnold Friedman and his 18-year-old son Jesse are arrested for 91 counts of presumed sexual assault. The prosecution contends that the two have raped and sodomized dozens of young boys enrolled in computer classes held in the Friedmans' basement. Bail is $1 million.
An initial investigation by postal inspectors concerns only Arnold's hidden collection of child pornography. But detectives soon suspect that he has preyed on his students. Jarecki makes it clear that the police may have muddied the waters by going overboard to prove guilt -- in several instances "victims" apparently were coached about what to say. Almost two decades after the scandal erupts, some of them admit to this fuzzy line between recollection and suggestion.
Even if he's innocent on the specific charges, however, Arnold is a self-confessed pedophile. He acknowledges as much in a biographical report sent to journalist Debbie Nathan, one of several talking heads in the film.
Like his father, Jesse pleads guilty, but his role in the complex scenario is more of a mystery. The teen asks for mercy from the court because Arnold supposedly molested him, too. Yet he tells his brothers that claim is a lie concocted by the defense attorney in hopes of getting him a more lenient sentence. It's difficult to know what to believe. This Friedman dichotomy prevails throughout Capturing.
Jarecki essentially stumbled onto their story when he set out to shoot a quirky little piece about New York City's most successful birthday-party clown: "Silly Billy," a.k.a. David Friedman. As the oldest of Arnold's three sons chatted about himself, a far more compelling tale emerged. Luckily for the director, the visual component proved to be strong. The Friedmans, lifelong extroverts, incessantly hammed it up for the camera.
Old Super-8 home movies of Arnold and the kids goofing around give way to David's videotapes, in which darker moments are painfully preserved. They never know when to yell, "Cut!" While the accused are out on bail awaiting trial, their 1988 Passover Seder becomes the setting for a harrowing psychodrama of recriminations.
In other footage, the Friedmans serve gallows humor with their pathos, although their lame jokes offer little comic relief. Sometimes the laughs are unintended. When the boys criticize their mother Elaine for calling Arnold "slime," he comes to her defense: "She doesn't call me slime every day."
A male Friedman's automatic response to duress apparently is to perform. When David comes home for Thanksgiving in 1987, the house has been invaded by cops and surrounded by TV cameras. He puts a clean pair of underpants over his head and shouts, "I'm an asshole!"
The embattled Elaine, always less extroverted than the others, is unsure about her husband's professed innocence. Their sons see this as a betrayal: David insists his dad was "a cool guy," his mom the real monster. Only the middle child, Seth, has declined an interview with Jarecki.
Elaine's honesty is anguishing as she reveals a marital life in which lovemaking was infrequent and perfunctory. Arnold "treated it like work," she recalls.
Both Arnold and Elaine survived broken homes as well as earlier tragedies. After graduating from Columbia University, he spent time in the Catskills as an entertainer -- Arnito Rey, a pseudo-Latin orchestra leader -- before settling down as a high school teacher. The couple oversees a theoretically tight-knit family unit that quickly comes apart. It's built on the quicksand of falsehoods.
Jarecki carefully balances the facts, but truth remains elusive. Left with a legacy of bitterness, David still thinks Arnold and Jesse were railroaded. He might have a point. The judge recalls, "There was never a doubt in my mind as to their guilt." Was impartial justice trampled? The only certainty is that many lives have been ruined.