Capturing The Friedmans

"Good"

Capturing The Friedmans Review


Andrew Jarecki's new documentary, I've read, started not as a journalistic exploration about a collapsing family, but as a piece about clowns who entertain children at birthday parties. Jarecki was urged by several of his original subjects to talk to fellow clown David Friedman. It turns out David's father and younger brother, Arnold and Jesse, were convicted on literally dozens of counts of sexual abuse, after years of living (along with wife and mother Elaine and middle child Seth) as a normal family in Great Neck, Long Island. Now here is Capturing the Friedmans, which, indeed, looks at not only a collapsing family but the nature of truth in a case this devastating: Even after multiple investigations and trials, it's never clear if the Friedmans are actually guilty -- or how guilty, either (we see that, at very least, a great deal of evidence has almost certainly been exaggerated or fabricated). The film raises the possibility that the Friedmans (particularly Jesse) were convicted on a wave of community outrage, rather than strict evidence -- but this is presented quietly, with relative objectivity. Nothing is clear-cut.

The elusive/murky-truth documentary has become the arthouse version of the nothing-as-it-seems thriller. Friedmans is also a cousin to the beneath-suburbia-lie-dark-secrets drama, although, as an elusive/murky-truth documentary, it's never clear how deep or dark these secrets go. To be fair, it's a fascinating film, although it could've just as easily aired on television. I don't blame Jarecki for failing to make the movie particularly "cinematic," as documentary films are often at an unfair advantage to their more widely seen, sensationalized TV counterparts. But the film is, essentially, a lengthy news report, albeit an unusually probing and multifacted one. The few stabs at cinema are poorly aimed. There are too many time-lapse shots of foliage, Long Island Railroad trains and traffic, including a long, ominous pan over what turns out to be... the Friedmans' street sign. All of the Long Island sightseeing borders on unintentional hilarity.

What sets Jarecki's film apart, though, is the unprecedented access to the Friedmans' personal home movies, shown throughout the film. The videos themselves are somewhat unprecedented, in that David Friedman kept a disturbingly complete record of his family's disintegration. His video camera captured levels of tension, infighting,and general collapse that would be considered nightmarish for many families to talk about, let alone show in a motion picture. Thus we see the Friedmans on vacations and clowning around, as well as debating about potential prison sentences.

Indeed, Arnold and Jesse repeatedly insist they are innocent, and David, as well as other family members, believes them; Elaine is not so sure -- then, in David's estimation, she has always felt left out by the father-son bonds in the Friedman household. We listen to investigators essentially justify the coercion of witnesses in official interviews, and we see Arnold stay quiet on home movies (it is a given that he possessed child pornography in the mail, but even the question of how much remains unanswered). We question the system, the Friedmans, and our own assumptions, repeatedly.

I wish Jarecki had shown more of the "normal" footage early on; the film runs for about five or ten minutes before allegations surface, so much of the usual home-movie stuff doesn't surface until later. I can see why Jarecki might shy away from it -- it could easily come off as hokey with such immediate contrast, and doubtless some of the audience, already familiar with the case, would spend half an hour waiting for inevitable revelations.

But as is, some of the attempts to tie all of this together seem contrived and movieish, as when footage of the elder Friedman's late sister, who died at an early age, auspiciously reappears late in the film. Eldest child David's "video diary," too, is a questionable inclusion. In the brief snippets we see, he rants and raves, breaking down for the camera, ostensibly as a personal record. It's understandable behavior that nonetheless creates a Truman Show-level blurring of reality and subtly learned performance. Perhaps this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, or David himself. I found myself unsure if Jarecki was interesting in showcasing David's pain or his indulgence. How far is this from what Fox is routinely criticized for including on its reality shows?

Still, it's this kind of uneasiness that makes Capturing the Friedmans such a unique experience, even if the primary reactions it will provoke are variations on "hmm" and "wow." It escapes newsmagazine averageness through sheer attention to its subjects.

Caught.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 107 mins

In Theaters: Thursday 28th August 2003

Box Office USA: $2.8M

Box Office Worldwide: $3.1M

Distributed by: Magnolia

Production compaines: Magnolia Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Fresh: 143 Rotten: 4

IMDB: 7.9 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: as himself, as herself, as himself, as himself, Seth Friedman as himself

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