In the book Doing Documentary Work, Robert Coles lays out "a twofold struggle: that of writers and photographers and filmmakers who attempt to ascertain what is, what can be noted, recorded, pictured; and that of presentation--how to elicit the interest of others, and how to provide a context, so that an incident, for instance, is connected to the conditions that informed and prompted its occurrence." Andrew Jarecki's film Capturing the Friedmans attempts "to ascertain what is" and provides "a context," but also raises questions of exploitation versus responsibility, and the choices made in choosing a window of context. Unquestionably, Capturing the Friedmans is a mesmerizing and moving account of the decimation of a family, but it is also, arguably, flawed by omission and a hubristic superiority over its hapless subjects.
Taken at face value, Capturing the Friedmans unfolds with the maddening efficiency of a mystery-suspense thriller (for those unfamiliar with the particulars of the Friedman case). Arnold Friedman, a teacher from Great Neck, Long Island, sired three boys with his wife Elaine. A bit of an entrepeneur, Friedman was a pioneer of computer education, and taught computer and piano lessons in his home. Friedman was also, it turned out, an admitted pedophile. Possession of child pornography got the attention of the authorities, who quickly set to work making a case of child abuse against Arnold and his teenage son Jesse. Though the case exploded the family unit and led to legal convictions, Jarecki presents evidence which calls those findings into doubt. Elaine remarks, "People's visions are distorted," and the film's advertisements ask, "Who do you believe?"
In part, then, Capturing the Friedmans is about the elusive nature of truth and, therefore, documentary film itself. But unlike Steve James's also clever, also disturbing documentary Stevie, released earlier this year, Jarecki's film appears subjective by sublimating its authorial voice to a third-person narrative. Though he touches provocatively on them, Jarecki chooses not to focus on the subjects of child abuse, pedophilia, pornography, homosexuality, and the criminal justice system. His choice of subject is--as suggested by the title--the Friedman family itself. And the film takes its form partly in talking-head interviews and ironic, lush photography of the Great Neck suburbs, but mostly from found footage: newscasts and voluminous, hideous home movies taken of, by, and for the Friedman family. If the film educates and enlightens, it mostly does so indirectly, like a concrete symbol which is, simply, itself, as well as something else.
This raises the question that sent a conflicted Andrew Jarecki to Mr. Robert Coles: can a filmmaker ethically strip away a family's privacy? Jarecki decided he could, with a measured approach that presented factual evidence and liberated the family of its secret shame. Never mind that Arnold's son David--New York's #1 birthday clown--had to be coerced into the process, partly ensnared by releases he and his mother had already signed for Jarecki's ostensible, initial documentary on party clowns. It's not the least bit surprising that David fears the effects of his past on his career: anyone could predict the shitstorm now heading his way. At one point in the film, David tells his video diary, "This is private, so if you're not me, 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." David recently told the New York Times his eventual cooperation, including the release of the tapes, "was all about Jesse, about helping him," or in Times reporter Julie Salamon's words, "he said he felt he had no choice but to participate." But film is voyeurism, so we watch, our disgust as much for ourselves as for anyone else, Jarecki's appropriated emotional snuff film.
Perhaps the film would be more palatable if not for its Dateline-with-snide-overtones style. Jarecki uses Buck Owens's "Act Naturally" in the opening credits ("We'll make a film about a man that's sad and lonely...Then I know that you will plainly see/The biggest fool that ever hit the big time/And all I gotta do is act naturally..."). Clever or smug? The answer is "Both." The same question and answer apply to golden-hued Blue Velvet-styled film footage of Great Neck, scored dramatically by Andrea Morricone and including sprinklers on green lawns and beaming, half-naked children out for a swim. And the reveal--framed as a punchline--of one character's homosexual orientation. And that plea for privacy by David, echoed by the film-ending, beyond-the-grave assertion of privacy by his father.
For all this, Capturing the Friedmans is fascinating and an endurance test, inviting and repellent. That it inspires such argument (as well as a tower of praise) makes Jarecki the winner. Still, one of his unspoken themes here is denial, and one wonders about the filmmaker's own.
NOTE: For more on the real case and the story behind the film, I highly recommend the article "Complex Persecution" by Debbie Nathan, the reporter interviewed in the film.