Who do you believe?
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Capturing the Friedmans is the amazing story of the Friedmans, a middle-class, respectable family that completely self-destructs over allegations of disturbing and shocking crimes. This powerful and compelling documentary illustrates the humanity and the fragility of a family who consistently videotaped their lives in passing, through amazing footage of the Friedman family struggling through the traumatic events that would inevitably destroy their lives.
Facts of the Case
The Friedmans are a middle-class family living in Great Neck, an affluent Long Island suburb. They have an affinity for video and enjoyed filming their daily lives, almost in a vaudevillian style. Arnold Friedman, the father, is an award-winning computer teacher at a local high school. He has a wife, Elaine, and three boys…David, Seth, and Jesse. Arnold is a model citizen who even teaches a computer class out of his basement for primary school kids.
Unfortunately, Arnold became the target of a federal mail investigation into child pornography. In the late 80s, numerous magazines had been sent to the Friedman home over a two-year period, and when investigators finally paid a visit to the Friedman home, they kicked down the front door, as well as some other doors Arnold would have preferred to keep close.
When the dust settled, Arnold had been charged with dozens of accounts of sexual molestation, assault, sodomy, and abuse of minors…assaults that allegedly happened during his computer classes for the neighborhood children. Worse, his 18-year old son Jesse had also been charged with similar crimes, allegedly assisting his father in abusing children. Suddenly, this stable, happy family begins to fall apart at the seams.
This astonishing documentary chronicles the life of the Friedman family coming to terms with allegations that have the potential to destroy every single one of their lives forever, struggling to answer personal questions as their family is torn apart by terrifying allegations and the growing hostile reaction from the neighborhood…
Capturing the Friedmans is a film about gray areas, a film about the middle ground that exists between truth and justice, between family and guilt. And amazingly, the project originally started as a film about professional birthday clowns in New York City.
This is absolutely true. The filmmakers stumbled upon the private story of the Friedmans completely by accident through David Friedman, who, years after the events of 1988, had changed his name, moved to NYC, and become a top-ranked birthday clown. Not surprisingly, upon discovering David's astonishing family history, the filmmakers ended up radically re-tooling their film project accordingly. David, at first, was reluctant to divulge his skeletons, but eventually provided access to an astonishing amount of Super 8 and VHS footage of his family that would become the heart of Capturing the Friedmans.
One would think that the sheer amount of home videos, audio recordings, testimonials, archival news footage, and private glimpses into the lives of the Friedmans would offer some profound realization, or clarity into the allegations surrounding the family. In fact, the exact opposite occurs…the more we see the Friedmans interact, play, argue, scream, and otherwise completely transmogrify from the safe, secure family unit they once were, any hope of gaining clear, decisive insight into the events in question becomes virtually impossible.
This, I think, is the brilliance of the film. The subject of memory being unreliable has been addressed countless times in other films, but rarely in documentary form. To be faced with a simple premise—either Arthur and Jesse are guilty of the crimes they are charged with or they are not—suddenly seems an almost impossible question to answer, because it becomes immeasurably clear that the Friedmans have no clear idea themselves, and the more we watch of their lives, the harder it becomes to ascertain exactly what happened or to simply pass judgment.
While it seems clear that Arthur is a pedophile, or at least, is attracted to young men and boys, whether any of the alleged incidents ever occurred in Great Neck is far less clear. The police at times seem overzealous in their interrogation techniques to extract testimony from the 10-year-old boys in question, and yet, Arthur himself has admitted to being inappropriate with younger boys years ago, in his past. And yet, the family footage of a kind, doting, loving father seems radically at odds with that of a carnal, violent sexual predator. The film presents testimony from students of Arthur's computer class who insist they were raped repeatedly countered with testimony from students who vehemently swear nothing out of the ordinary happened at the Friedmans.
This is the style of the filmmaking, striking a strange balance between pointing an accusing finger and casting a pitying gaze on its subjects. The only thing that remains an absolute certainty in Capturing the Friedmans, without spoiling the movie for anyone, is the escalating violent reactions from the community towards the Friedmans and the absolute disintegration of a perfectly normal family unit into confused, seething chaos.
The first disc contains the feature film, the director's commentary, and the theatrical trailer. The commentary by director/producer Andrew Jarecki and editor/co-producer Richard Hanken is a fairly low-key discussion between the creators over editing structure and film methods, and both add observations about the "characters" in the film and behind-the-scene tidbits throughout.
The second disc is the mother lode, absolutely jammed to the hilt with two hours of extra footage, new testimony, short films, and altercations…an extra film's worth of supplementary material, really. The extras are diverse and exhaustive, essentially 23 separate featurettes that go into great detail about more specific details in the Friedman case, the fallout, and family effects of the altercations, and basically expand and explore the themes and questions throughout the film. In terms of DVD content, the extras offered on Capturing the Friedmans are a stunning achievement, offering an immersive examination into the dozens of questions that permeate the film.
For example, great detail is spent examining the shock, the outrage, and the ultimate backlash of the community towards the Friedman family, the almost gang mentality that bound together parents in Great Neck in a frenzy of anti-Semitic hatred. Numerous death threats are recorded on audiotape, and during the film itself, an enraged father charges towards Jesse with fists flying, screaming obscenities…all captured on film by the family.
Another standout featurette on the DVD is two videotaped altercations between various cast members during Q&A sessions at the New York and Great Neck film premieres. The court judge, police officers, Arnold and Jesse's lawyers, and other people interviewed for the film attended these premieres, and, amazingly, these people who were actually part of the events paraphrased in the film seem unable themselves to agree on the events. This, more than anything, illustrates the strange dichotomy of the film, the odd balance between dissenting and affirming opinions.
Both the video and audio quality of the film are impressive. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is sharp and clear, with a relatively small amount of scratches and dust particles. A wide selection of film sources are used in Capturing the Friedmans, but even the incredibly old Super 8 footage still looks amazingly good on this DVD. The colors are balanced and vibrant, and black levels are sharp and deep. The audio sounds incredibly clear and detailed. The dialogue is well balanced and mixed perfectly, and the powerful score by Andrea Morricone (son of the incredibly prolific and famous cinema composer Ennio Morricone) is both pleasing and haunting and swings from uplifting strings back to ominous guitar ballads at a moment's notice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the almost "gallows humor" exhibited from time to time throughout the film, the subject matter of Capturing the Friedmans may not sit right with everyone…that is, until you see it. It is no understatement that pedophilia is an emotionally charged issue; in fact, there is probably nothing more aggressive and heinous. So it is no coincidence that the theatrical trailer and DVD packaging are ambiguous towards the precise nature of the "shocking crimes" associated with the Friedman family.
But for those who have learned the nature of the film and, for whatever reason, choose to avoid the film, I wish to emphasize the following: Capturing the Friedmans is a fantastic, fantastic film and one of the best documentaries you will ever see. The subject is treated with both tact and the respect that it deserves, and though the film takes a rather neutral moral ground in passing judgment, it treats the alleged crimes with the respect that such egregious actions deserve.
The subject matter may not sit right with some people, but the film will. I assure you.
Capturing the Friedmans, above all else, is about the self-destruction of a family; and, as such, it hits hard, no matter how you choose to pass judgment on it. The film is elusive, gripping, entertaining, but stunningly profound, and with the voluptuous amount of extras included on this DVD, it literally billows at the edges with awesomeness.
This will be one of the best DVD releases of 2004, and deservedly so. The story crafted in Capturing the Friedmans extends far beyond the boundary of a lukewarm documentary into something tangible, the by-product left behind after the annihilation of a family, a corporeal entity given a moving, compelling form…a form that you can now buy on DVD.
And you probably should, because this DVD flat out rules.
Obviously, under the circumstances, passing an outright "guilty" or "not guilty" verdict would be a foolish thing indeed, and despite what you may have heard, I am certainly not dumb enough to try.
I simply say that everyone should see this movie, no excuses, and that this could be one of the best DVDs I have ever laid my hands on.
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Scales of Justice
• Filmmaker's Audio Commentary
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