Real Scary Movie

Before the fall: the Friedmans in happier days
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Andrew Jarecki's debut documentary Capturing the Friedmans is a horror movie, though it features no ghastly ghosts, no aliens tap-tap-tapping on windows, no acronym epidemics. There is just a family, an affluent Long Island community in the mid-'80s, and many, many mistakes--which might more correctly be termed foibles, sins, or even truths. A man is arrested, along with his son, on numerous counts of child molestation. Are they guilty? Jarecki refuses a final answer. The horror of Capturing the Friedmans is that all of those involved--accused, accusers, police, family--think they're telling the truth, but there's still no knowing for sure. And in the end, innocent lives are destroyed for good.

That those consequences are so haunting is a credit to Jarecki and editor Richard Hankin. Their movie transports the viewer from solid ground to quicksand over and over in a way that seems to recreate the Friedmans' own confusion. When Arnold Friedman was caught mailing and receiving child pornography in a police sting, nobody--least of all his wife Elaine--knew he was hiding a stash of crude magazines behind his piano. When police battered down the door before Thanksgiving 1987, nobody--least of all Arnold--knew that the police had obtained a list of the students in his informal computer class and discovered allegations of child abuse. The concurrent arrest of Jesse, the youngest of the Friedmans' three sons, seems to flabbergast the family even 15 years later.

Of course there's another way to view this familial flailing, and the detectives who built the case present their findings with confidence. Jarecki tracks down three of the child accusers, one of whom details the cruel practices of the two Friedmans. The presiding judge, district attorney, and lawyers recall their roles. But the director's focus is unapologetically on the Friedmans and how they tell their stories. The family itself presents the most convincing evidence against Arnold--and, to a lesser extent, against Jesse--by offering up their grievances, their doubts, their confessions. On display--squirmishly so--is a history of abandonment, strife, and sexual damage that goes back at least to Elaine and Arnold's parents.

Yet the Friedmans' stories are not so strange. There's divorce. There's a mother who feels left out of her spouse's camaraderie with their sons. There's the feeling of betrayal when children discover their parents' weaknesses. Most of us, however, don't have our family dynamics examined under the blazing light of a news camera. (Arnold and Jesse's court cases were among the first allowed to be videotaped.) In the course of filming, Jarecki also discovered three generations of Friedman home movies; as Elaine notes, with some irony, "Arnold liked pictures," and so do his sons. David, the eldest, shot handheld video of family arguments and brave-faced humor throughout the aftermath of the arrests. The footage is immediate and painful: It's like the Loud family with no outside crew, only passionate--and desperate--participants.

In one video snippet, David turns the camera on himself, shattering in helpless rage. "This is between me and me," he says first, warning off any potential witness. "If you're not me, turn it off." Obviously, David's present self has okayed the use of this video. Just as clearly, Jarecki wants viewers to understand what an intrusion their viewing is. Part of what horrifies me is the juxtaposition between the Friedmans' nakedness--forced and not--and the darkness that the accusers hide within. (Their faces are never seen.) Yes, victims need and deserve anonymity. But two of the three interviewees here admit that they made up accusations to please the police or to "get them off [my] back." The third says he discovered his abuse memories under hypnosis. Who's the victim deserving of a veil?

The detectives incriminate themselves by describing wildly biased interviewing techniques. ("We know [Arnold] or Jesse touched you," one remembers telling a child.) Jarecki also gets trenchant comments from Debbie Nathan, one of the first journalists to question the sex-abuse hysteria that splintered more than one community in the mid-'80s. (Jordan, Minnesota, anyone?) Still, Capturing the Friedmans would have benefited from more context. What happened to the accused in other communities?

And what happens to the accusers? Near film's end, David videotapes a violent encounter between Jesse and one of the parents. It shakes him, despite his faith in his brother's innocence. These accusations have terrorized more than a single family. If they're true, the damage is obvious. If they're false, the question is: What's the cost of the performance of victimization?

Indeed, this is a movie about performance. David is now New York's most successful birthday-party clown--and still furious. Arnold performed "normal" for decades. Jesse and Arnold are asked to perform "guilty" and plea-bargain. Some masks stick, at staggering cost. Truth is whatever convinces a fearful and uninformed audience. This is a horror film of our times.

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