An American family, unvarnished

Times Staff Writer

It's a Sundance Film Festival certainty: countless movies telling disquieting stories of picture-perfect families destroyed by adversity, teens facing terrible decisions, the personal price of dark secrets. The twist this year is that among these tales, one of the most dramatic isn't even a drama, but a documentary.

"Capturing the Friedmans" is an account of how both pedophilia and hysteria can topple an outwardly stable family. It's also a story about truth and dishonesty, of sacrifice and abandonment. The title holds two distinct meanings, because this is a movie not only about how the criminal justice system captures its suspects, but also how three generations of the Friedman family captures itself on film, videotape and audiocassettes.

In an era of reality TV, where little is left to shock, this footage is unnerving. These are home movies unlike any you have seen before, but not because they reveal anything sexual. They instead bare the family's emotions, the Friedmans' cameras rolling even after the father of this well-off family is arrested for allegedly possessing child pornography.

With the audience seeing first-hand how everyday people try to handle an extraordinary situation, "Capturing the Friedmans" essentially picks up where "An American Family" left off. Unlike the 1973 miniseries, the stakes are no longer a divorce and a son's coming out, but years in prison and total ruin.

"This is not a classic miscarriage-of-justice story," says Andrew Jarecki, the film's director and producer, even though it challenges many conclusions about the case. "It's a classic tragedy. It's a story of a father who in many ways was a good and noble person who clearly had a tragic flaw, which leads certainly to his undoing, but also his family's. It's a story about our responsibilities to our families."

The movie, which is playing in Sundance's documentary competition and which screened for the first time Friday night, certainly didn't start out that way.

A father of two boys, Jarecki was sucked into Manhattan's birthday party circuit, where wealthy parents spare nothing throwing the best bash for their 4-year-olds, including hiring the top clowns. "I wanted to figure out who these clowns were and where they came from," Jarecki says. More than three years ago, he decided to profile David Friedman, a legendarily popular children's entertainer.

He filmed David for six months, but whenever he asked him about his family, David stopped talking. Jarecki eventually persuaded David to take him to the Long Island house where he grew up, which had been sold to another family. Jarecki waited outside, and 20 minutes later, David wobbled out, clearly traumatized by some grim memory it held. When Jarecki interviewed David's mother, Elaine, she strangely said, "We were a family once," even though all three of her sons were still alive.

"When I heard that, I wanted to know why they stopped being a family," Jarecki says.

Jarecki, who made his fortune as the founder of Moviefone and is making his first documentary, started piecing together David's past. He eventually learned that David's father, Leonard, had been arrested in 1987 for allegedly possessing such pornographic magazines as Jail Bait and Incest. Yet those first charges were only the beginning of Leonard's, and all of the Friedmans', problems.

At first, Jarecki attempted to incorporate this new information into his documentary about a clown. It clearly didn't fit together. So he began work on another film. He tracked down law enforcement officials, neighborhood kids, lawyers -- anybody who could shed light on Leonard's arrest, and how his case snowballed toward his family.

Jarecki's most important asset was the Friedmans' home movies. They include fierce arguments, a riveting video diary, and a haunting "Cheek to Cheek" played by Arnold on the piano. Jarecki said he agonized about using the film, videotape and audiocassettes, fearful that he would make public a family's most private moments. "I thought there was a possibility I would make the film and never release it," Jarecki says.

He eventually decided that no matter how difficult the footage is to watch, the Friedmans wanted their story told.

It's unclear whether he was entirely successful. One of the three Friedman sons refused to participate. And while some other family members bravely attended the film's first Sundance screening, David was noticeably absent. "He continues to be in a quandary about the film," Jarecki says.

"It is borderline exploitation," admits Jesse Friedman, one of the sons central to the documentary who supports the film. "But this is not the first big event that this family has been through. No one is supposed to air their dirty laundry, but we always had a sense we wanted to tell our story. And I don't feel like I have anything to hide." For that part, neither does the movie. Several distributors have expressed interest in the film. It could be in theaters before year's end.

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