The 2003 HBO documentary ‘Capturing the Friedmans’, directed by Andrew Jarecki, captures paedophilia as it rears its ugly head from underneath the thin veneer of suburban family life
Speaking about her ex-husband who pleaded guilty to several counts of child molestation and sodomy and eventually committed suicide in jail, Elaine Friedman says, “Arnold liked pictures.”
It is indeed true that the Friedmans took great pride in recording themselves in short, fun-filled home videos, an innocuous avocation which at first glance, appears to be an extension of their playful nature. In one of the videos, Arnold Friedman facetiously complains why despite being the father he has never been part of the family videos. The smile gleaming on his tired face is captured on video by his eldest son David, who keeps fidgeting with the zoom dial.
Andrew Jarecki’s haunting documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003) borrows from this video vault of the Friedmans’ to tell the most unusual story. He unleashes the power of the moving pictures the Friedmans created, to capture paedophilia as it rears its ugly head from underneath the thin veneer of suburban family life.
Elusive nature of facts
In the 1980s, the Friedmans were living an idyllic family life to be cut short by the Nassau County police, who confiscated a child pornography magazine addressed to Arnold.
This subsequently led to a score of little kids accusing the Friedman patriarch of molesting and sodomizing them in the most gruesome fashion imaginable. 19-year-old Jesse, the youngest of the three Friedman sons was also among the accused.
To explore the details of the case, Jarecki intersperses home video footage shot by Arnold’s eldest son David during the time with interviews of Arnold’s alleged victims. This, brings out the conflicting narratives running parallel through the entire documentary, quite effectively.
The home videos provide the viewers with a seat at the Friedman household’s dining table as they get busy in building a defence to save Arnold and Jesse. The interviews leave the audiences perplexed at times when the victims seem to self contradict themselves on camera.
The plot gets even murkier after it is made clear that parents used questionable methods like hypnosis to bring out a confession from their child. Some students even complain about the heavy-handedness of the police. To top it all, Judge Abbey Boklan who heard the case told the media that she was convinced that the accused were guilty even before the trial began.
A look at the past
Just when one begins to question the nature of the facts presented in the case by the police, Jarecki digs up the skeletons in the Freidman closet by juxtaposing Arnold’s legal predicament with his troubled childhood — again using home shot footage.
In a flickering black and white video, a little kid in a ballerina attire is seen shaking her legs to an old tune. Her innocent smile and childish enthusiasm as she twirls around is disarming, wholesome.
Younger sister to Arnold Friedman, this little dancer died of blood poisoning at the tender age of 5, a death blow to her parent’s marriage, who separated soon after.
Subsequently, her two brothers moved in with their mother in a single room apartment. Almost every night, Arnold and Howard (Arnold’s younger brother) saw their mother bring back a date whom she made love to in that one single bedroom of their apartment.
“Arnold was there, listening, and he said because he saw his mother having sex when he was an adolescent, he decided to experiment and had sex with his brother on the same bed,” said Arnold’s ex-wife Elaine to Jarecki’s camera crew.
Arnold was 13, Howard was 8. Soon he moved on to having sexual relations with kids his age, discovering his attraction for young boys for the first time.
Aided by decisive editing and crucial testimony from the central characters, Capturing the Friedmans humanises the Friedman family, something that the news channels covering the case at the time failed to do.
Though the film does not try to hide Arnold’s homophobic tendencies, it does question whether he did molest his students and if his son was actively involved in the same.
As the storm brews in the courthouse, the Friedman family unit falls apart. Incessant infighting and wild antics of the brothers (Jesse’s enactment of a Monty Python sketch on the courthouse steps before the deliverance of a crucial verdict being one) leaves the viewers aghast in astonishment and repulses them at the same time.
Ultimately, Arnold pleads guilty to the charges against him in the hope of saving his son, but in vain.
Is he responsible for sexually molesting scores of his underage students? Did Jesse help his father perpetrate these horrendous crimes despite many of his friends vouching for his innocence? Was the police investigation conducted fairly?
The film fails to answer these questions, but leaves the viewers to make up their own mind.
The only things we learn for sure is that a family is destroyed, its members scarred for the rest of their days and a young life is ‘terminated only to resume at a later date’. The camera can only be a bystander.