Capturing the Friedmans (2003): Haunting Docu is Jury Prize Winner of Sundance Film Fest

The Oscar-nominated “Capturing the Friedmans”, a 2003 winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance Film Festival, is a riveting documentary that explores the elusive nature of truth through the prism of one of the most perplexing criminal cases in modern American history.

On the surface, the Friedmans are a well-adjusted Jewish-American family. Arnold Friedman is a respected science teacher, his longtime wife, Elaine, a homemaker. Living in the affluent community of Long Island’s Great Neck, the couple has devoted their lives to raising three boys: David, the eldest, Seth, the middle one, and Jesse, the youngest.

It all happened on Thanksgiving Day, 1987, when the family gathered for a quiet holiday dinner. Without any warning, three police splintered the front door, rushed into the house, searching every corner of it. After seizing several boxes of family possessions, they arrest father Arnold and his son, Jesse, 18, leading them away in handcuffs through a maze of newsmen and cameras. Father and son are suspected of possessing child pornography materials and sexual misconduct with minors. Elaine is utterly shocked at the suggestion that he husband led a double life and is now accused of being a pedophile. She begins to doubt whether she ever got to know her husband of two decades.

A long, convoluted investigation unfolds, and father and son are indicted for numerous shocking sex crimes. While the entire family vehemently declares its innocence, the Great Neck community is thrown into a hysterical uproar, and the formerly respectable citizens become the target of the town’s rage and discrimination.

Aptly–though ironically–titled, “Capturing the Friedmans” follows the 15-year-story from both the family’s and the community’s perspective. Remarkably, director Andrew Jarecki gained access to unique video footage, shot contemporaneously by the Friedmans themselves over a long period of time, and during the investigation, imprisonment, and the aftermath.

Dissecting one family in crisis, while placing a whole community under scrutiny, “Capturing the Friedmans” is a brilliant work. As the police pursue the investigation, and the community reacts to an unpredictable chain of events, the fabric of one seemingly happy family begins to disintegrate, and sacred notions of family love, loyalty and betrayal are contested.

There’s hardly any issue that this landmark documentary does not tackle. Its theatrical release led to heated debates about the American legal system, individual versus community, responsibility of husbands to wives, family values, and ultimately, the elusive and slippery nature of truth, since the film unfolds as a Rashomon-like puzzle.

In one of the most illuminating moments, Elaine drifts off for a moment, sort of losing her memory, then she suddenly says, “I don’t know. We were once a family.” That sentence is a key to the documentary, as Jarecki notes: “The idea of an old woman speaking about her family in the past tense was strikingly sad.” Jarecki thereupon set out to understand how the Friedmans ceased to be a family, embarking on a three-year-journey with the family and community at large. As a filmmaker, he was provoked to contest the very foundations of the family as the primary unit of personal and social life. The image of a bewildered Elaine making this heartbreaking observation continues to haunt long after watching the film.

On a literal level, “Capturing the Friedmans” is a chronicle of one family going through extremely difficult times. The alleged crimes constitute the film’s centerpiece, driving the behavior of the family, the police, and the community. On a more philosophical level, the film is about the elusive nature of truth, how memories evolve over time to suit our needs.

To his credit, Jarecki resists the temptation of portraying the family as deviant or eccentric, instead showing how similar all families are. While our initial reaction as viewers might be, “what a screwed-up family the Friedmans are, on a second thought, once we get past the story’s more salacious elements–did the father and son molest the children who took music lessons in their house–and have a chance to reflect on it, we might say, “At least one character in this family reminded me of someone in mine.”

Whenever we see something strange in a non-fiction film, we tend to distance ourselves from it, to objectify the people and think of them as one-dimensional creatures who have nothing in common with us. For Jarecki, this kind of attitude lets us off the hook, preventing us from having to examine ourselves.

Throughout, “Capturing the Friedmans” maintains an ambiguous, open-ended tone. Though the father admits to have subscribed to porn magazines and owning porn photos, it’s never clear whether he did engage in any deviant sexual conduct with minors. The students who had visited the Friedman’s house offer contradictory evidence: some recall being touched, while others claim that the Friedmans had never crossed the line. The students’ parents also fail to present hard evidence. None testifies that after returning home from the Friedmans, their children were upset, their clothes wrinkled, or any signs of being bruised.

What lends the film an immeasurable authenticity is the Friedmans’ own home videos. While most families use home videos to document happy occasions like birthdays, the Friedmans never turned the camera off, even after the police showed up. The Friedmans filmed their most intimate feelings and most intense private moments. It’s amazing to realize how much of their lives was recorded, some of which three generations ago.

The most important footage was shot in the late 1980s, after the arrests (and the father taking his life in jail), when hand-held video cameras gained popular use. In this respect, the Friedmans were really ahead of the curve in what later became an American obsession with self-documentation. Seeing their story unfold from inside the family provides a level of intimacy that’s absent from most documentaries.

Unlike “The Osbourns”, the popular American TV show that revolves around the eccentric Beverly Hills family, the Friedmans didn’t know that there would be a film about them. Jarecki also dismisses the concern that the Friedmans were consciously acting up for the camera. The camera was on perpetually, even during routine events like shopping at the supermarket. When the camera is there all the time, after a while, it disappears and becomes part of the habitual family life.

Still, the question remains, why did the family wait so long to tell their story Jarecki holds that “it was a story they had wanted and even needed to tell for a long time, but didn’t really know where to begin. They needed distance to gain some perspective, and they also knew that telling the story too early could be dangerous to them since the events described continued to unfold.

What makes the Friedmans’ story riveting is the lack of agreement over “basic facts.” “People’s visions are distorted,” Elaine says in the film. And, indeed, each family member has a different recollection of the past, colored by subjective agendas and perceptions.

The unrated DVD edition includes interviews with Jarecki about the process of making the documentary, and reactions to the film when it was shown in Great Neck, attended by law-enforcement agencies and other groups. There are also individual family portraits that update the story, showing Jesse attending college and trying to clear his name, and David continuing his popular job as a clown in birthday parties.