Cameras on, judgments off

Times Staff Writer

“This is private,” David Friedman says, unequivocal and visibly upset, glaring at the camera in a page from his video diary. “If you’re not me, then you really shouldn’t be watching this because this is supposed to be a private situation between me and me. So turn it off, don’t watch this, this is private.”

Reality TV has proved that we all like to watch, but “Capturing the Friedmans,” a frustrating and unhappy new documentary, provides a different twist on that truism. Overmatched by the strange and compelling true story that is its subject, this unfortunate film ends up both more disingenuous than it wants to admit and more awkward than it can easily acknowledge. Its Sundance grand jury prize notwithstanding, this is finally a particularly naked and invasive form of voyeurism, “The Real World” for the PBS crowd.

Director Andrew Jarecki, whose only previous film experience came 15 years ago when he produced an 18-minute short, would be the first person to admit that he basically stumbled on the Friedmans’ eventful story. Wanting to do a film on children’s birthday party clowns, Jarecki interviewed David Friedman, at the top of that profession in Manhattan, and sensed there was something eating at the man -- something about his father and his family.


What Jarecki discovered and what “Capturing” gradually reveals is that David’s father, Arnold Friedman, and his then-18-year-old brother, Jesse, had been at the center of a sensational child molestation case in Great Neck, N.Y., in 1987. That family story turns out to be a chronicle with so many head-shaking complications that the attention-grabbing strangeness of it all almost -- but not quite -- masks the film’s considerable problems in conveying them to us.

Unknown to his wife, Elaine, and his three sons, Arnold was a pedophile, someone who was sexually aroused by the sight of young boys. “Arnold, let’s face it,” his wife says wearily, “he liked pictures.” But the unmasking of this award-winning high school teacher by an especially zealous U.S. Postal Service sting operation was only the beginning of the Friedmans’ mounting troubles.

It turned out Arnold taught computer classes to young boys in his home, and soon enough even-more-zealous functionaries from the Nassau County Sex Crimes Unit had put together a 107-count indictment against Arnold and an eventual 245-count indictment against Jesse, accusing them of abusive behavior on a scale not seen since the Marquis de Sade.

As unusual as all this is, there is a kicker: The Friedman father and sons were passionate early users of home video. In love with the process as well as themselves, they recorded almost everything that went on in that Great Neck home, from typical holiday dinners to David’s video diary to the venomous, vitriolic family arguments that followed Arnold’s arrest and pitted the outraged sons, sure of their father’s innocence, against their stunned, distraught mother.

Jarecki got permission to use this footage (more about that later) and, over the three years he worked on “Capturing,” supplemented it with extensive interviews with numerous people involved in the case. (Middle son Seth presciently refused to cooperate.)

All this sounds like the kind of potentially involving reexamination of a suspect criminal case that Errol Morris did so expertly in “Thin Blue Line.” But at some point in the process, Jarecki decided to structure the project around his refusal as filmmaker to say if he thought the Friedmans were guilty or not. And it is with this pose of neutrality that the film’s troubles begin.


The word “pose” is used advisedly and for several reasons. No matter what claims the director has made for taking himself out of things, it couldn’t be clearer that Jarecki believes, as any sophisticated viewer of the film will as well, that, a la California’s McMartin case, there was a serious miscarriage of justice in terms of the scale of the crimes the Friedmans were charged with. As investigative journalist Debbie Nathan, the film’s very welcome voice of sanity, puts it, we have a problem in our culture with hysteria in the area of sexual abuse -- the Friedman situation being a case in point.

But the fact that satanic orgies did not take place in Great Neck computer classes is not the same thing as saying that absolutely nothing anyone could object to took place. This becomes especially pertinent given later revelations about Arnold and his behavior that the film coyly lets us in on. For the Friedmans turn out to be a stranger and messier bunch than this film is comfortable with or quite knows how to handle.

Jarecki’s pose of impartiality gets especially troublesome for audiences when it enables him to evade responsibility for dealing with the complexities of his material. It’s not a bogus resolution that’s needed here, but a more artful handling of the story’s contradictions. It would take a more experienced filmmaker to manage that, someone like Morris or Charles Burnett, who recently took on an equally explosive subject in his excellent documentary “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.” But instead of admitting he was in over his head, Jarecki gave up on the attempt to fully digest his material, deciding it suited him more to beg off responsibility when things got too inscrutable.

This bogus hands-off attitude also allows Jarecki to avoid the larger question of whether his obsession with this case is enough of a reason for viewers to be wallowing in it on film. Do we, for instance, really need to know the details of Arnold’s sex life with his wife? Is there any reason beyond bad-accident voyeurism for watching David’s agonized video diary, or the savage, horrifying videotaped verbal abuse the self-involved Friedman boys inflicted on a mother whose suffering they were oblivious to?

Even if the Friedmans approved of their own exploitation, does that mean they were less taken advantage of? Is morbid curiosity, even tricked up with the illusion of postmodern distance and the frisson of the forbidden provided by a pedophile protagonist, any excuse for intruding on and making a spectacle of these people’s lives? Is there anything strong enough to remove the kind of rancid taste this film leaves in our mouths?

Interestingly enough, these same questions seem to have occurred to Jarecki, who in a recent interview tried to distance himself from the taint of reality TV by saying, “It’s one thing to face running out of food on ‘Survivor,’ but that’s nothing like being inside the Friedmans’ house in the midst of what happened.” Or maybe the distance is smaller than we are comfortable accepting.

In his uncertainty, the director discussed the film with celebrated child psychologist Robert Coles. Apparently a very persuasive man, Jarecki eventually won Coles over, just as he somehow convinced a reluctant David Friedman to cooperate with this project though it has a fair chance of ending his successful career.

However, Coles, who is not in the film, initially had some pertinent reservations. “It’s a fine line, isn’t it,” he told one journalist, “between telling the truth and parading the truth.” It’s a line “Capturing the Friedmans,” in its final act of deception, pretends doesn’t even exist.


‘Capturing the Friedmans’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Extremely adult material, including detailed discussions of pedophilia

An HBO Documentary Films presentation, released by Magnolia Pictures. Director Andrew Jarecki. Producers Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling. Cinematographer Adolfo Doring. Editor Richard Hankin. Music Andrea Morricone. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

In limited release.