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Published April 9th, 2004 | by Ed Colley

Capturing the Friedmans Review

Families are important. It could even be said that as a society we value the strengths of our family ties above all else. Which is why Capturing the Friedmans will have a particular impact on the hearts and minds of its audiences. For at the centre of Andrew Jarecki’s powerful documentary (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival) is a seemingly ordinary, middle-class family, whose lives were ripped asunder one extraordinary day.

Capturing the Friedmans began as a documentary about clowns working in New York, but quickly changed direction once Jarecki became aware of the compelling story behind one of his interviewees. A successful children’s entertainer, David Friedman’s professional life of comedy masked a deeply tragic history. For several years earlier, David’s father and brother, Arnold and Jesse Friedman, had been accused of hundreds of shocking child-abuse crimes. Their court-case was the centre of a media-frenzy and both were found guilty.

‘I don’t think that just because there were things in his life that were private and secret and shameful means the father who I knew and the things I knew about him were in any way not real’, Jesse Friedman

Realising the potential of this story, Jarecki began digging deeper, contacting various members of the Friedman family and those involved in their explosive history. Then David let Jarecki into one more of his secrets.

The Friedmans had been very quick to embrace home movie technology – so much so that they videoed the minutiae of their daily lives. The family had, in fact, become so accustomed to filming themselves that they continued to do so during the trial, even as certain devastating accusations levelled against Arnold were discovered as having a basis of truth. As a result, David Friedman had footage of his closest relatives as they lived through their personal nightmare. In short, David had filmed his family falling apart.

‘I would like to see… people leave and say, “ I’ve seen a lot of films this year where… I’m supposed to think something. And here, I’m not supposed to think something. I’m just supposed to think” That’s my hope.’ Andrew Jarecki

There is much about Capturing the Friedmans that makes for a fascinating documentary. The Friedman’s history is unfurled through a series of interviews with individuals who were involved in the trial, including friends, relatives, police officers, lawyers and alleged victims. Through the various twists and turns of the Friedman story, as well as the conflicting accounts he incorporates into his film, Jarecki is able to manipulate his audience into reaching certain beliefs about Albert and Jesse before challenging them to reconsider their position time and time again. Although Jarecki does not treat the Friedmans in a wholly objective manner, he is skilled enough as a director to not only let his audience eventually make up their own minds regarding the ‘innocence’ of Arnold and Jesse, but to also force them into questioning their preconceptions surrounding incredibly controversial issues.

‘I don’t know. I – I can’t say too much about it. We were a family’, Elaine Friedman

However, the most remarkable aspect of the film is the home videos that show the Friedman family breaking apart. Filled with declarations of love and support as well as accusations and recriminations (particularly during what was clearly a Passover night from Hell), the footage taken by David shows the members of his family coping with their nightmare existence in a variety of uniquely individual ways: bitter humour, exasperation, fury, or just quiet, guilt-ridden acceptance.

It is difficult to look at these extremely personal moments of film from the safety of a cinema without feeling guilty about voyeuristically experiencing the Friedman’s disintegration as a family unit. However, this is outweighed by the film’s illustration of the particular nature of this family, and how its apparently solid structure quickly collapsed due to unbearable pressure from both within and without. Capturing the Friedmans is an unsettling viewing experience, but it might also make audiences rethink any complacently held views they have about the nature of their own families, and will perhaps make them all the more appreciative as a result.

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