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Sex, lies and home video

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

For his first feature-length film, Andrew Jarecki set out to make a documentary of the community of clowns who entertain at kids’ parties in Manhattan. In the clowns, Jarecki believed he had found a sufficiently complex and interesting group of characters.

“I certainly thought it was going to be an interesting character study,” said the 40-year-old Jarecki. “It’s a segment of the population that is sort of quirky and odd. I figured there had to be an interesting story there.”

When Jarecki came across David Friedman, the top man on the kids’ party clown circuit, he began to suspect he had a subject who was odder and quirkier than your average clown. It turned out Friedman had a most interesting story to tell, and it had nothing to do with clowns.

Jarecki’s feature-length debut turned out to be “Capturing the Friedmans,” an astonishing film far removed from his original idea. “Capturing the Friedmans” – which will be screened by Aspen Filmfest on Tuesday, Aug. 19, at Paepcke Auditorium, followed by a discussion with Jarecki and co-producer Marc Smerling – tells the story of the Friedman family of the well-to-do town of Great Neck, on New York’s Long Island.

In 1987, cracks opened in the seemingly normal family. Arnold Friedman, father and retired schoolteacher, was investigated for possession of child pornography and eventually charged with sexually abusing the children to whom he gave computer classes in the family basement. Also charged with sexual abuse was Arnold’s youngest son, 18-year-old Jesse. Arnold and then Jesse pleaded guilty to the charges and drew lengthy jail sentences.

“Capturing the Friedmans” casts considerable doubt on the actual guilt of Arnold and Jesse, who filed guilty pleas assuming they would not get a fair trial. Why, for instance, was there not one piece of physical evidence – torn clothing, semen, blood, bruises – to support the charges? Jarecki, without trying, catches the police who investigated the case in exaggerations and altered recollections. By the end of the film, one is left with an uneasy feeling: While disturbing things clearly occurred in the Friedman house, Arnold and Jesse probably fall short of the child-molester tag that Arnold died with, and that still haunts Jesse in his effort to live a reasonably normal life. As Arnold notes, “I’m being charged with the wrong felony.”

But the film is not a mere exercise in investigative documentary filmmaking. “Capturing the Friedmans,” which earned the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival, is grander in its scope than the re-examining of a crime file. Jarecki brings in aspects of media sensationalism and prosecutorial over-reaching.

But there is a deeper level still, and that is the penetration of family life that “Capturing the Friedmans” achieves. Using extensive home film and video provided by David Friedman, and recent interviews with the shockingly forthcoming family members, Jarecki tells a family history of tragic magnitude. Within the Friedman clan there is betrayal, masked motives, shame, protection and long-buried secrets. “Capturing the Friedmans” reminds us that family life is the cauldron that cooks up the stickiest stories.

Digging for details

Andrew Jarecki went down this rabbit hole while interviewing David Friedman, dressed as his alter ego, Silly Billy, for his clown project. When David blurted out, “There’s some things I don’t want to talk about” – a scene preserved in “Capturing the Friedmans” – Jarecki became convinced that those things were worth a closer look.

“There were a lot of little moments, where I discovered there was more to the story,” said Jarecki, a product of Manhattan and Westchester County, just north of New York City, who co-founded Moviefone, a business sold to America Online for a good-sized fortune in 1999. “And he wasn’t comfortable telling me that story, for what become obvious reasons.”

Jarecki began to dig, and found that there wasn’t a lot of resistance to his idea of making a documentary of the Friedmans’ story. David led Jarecki to his mother, Elaine Friedman. (David, the family’s home-video fanatic, asked only that Jarecki track down a copy of David’s appearance, as a 3-year-old, on “Candid Camera.”) David also paved the way for Jarecki to visit Jesse in prison. (Not interviewed for the film is middle brother Seth, who declined to participate.)

“Jesse very much wanted the story to be told,” said Jarecki. “And David said, if you’re really going to tell the story, in addition to the home movies I gave you, there are also 25 hours of video that I shot after the police came.”

That home footage is what sets “Capturing the Friedmans” apart. The sequences are at turns humorous, revealing, repulsive and heart-wrenching. In one scene, a nakedly emotional David, sitting on a bed in just his underwear, spits out at the camera, “If you’re not me, you’re not supposed to be watching this.” There is also video taken at momentous family occasions: family gatherings the nights before court dates, the day Jesse is sentenced to prison, internecine discussions about the court case. There is also older footage: of Arnold and Elaine as a young couple, of the Friedmans as an offbeat but happy family before all the troubles.

The home film puts a slant on the family personality. Elaine has been an outsider to the fun and games engaged in by the male Friedmans from early on. It’s not much surprise then that Elaine is less than supportive of her husband, and even her son, and comes off as the decimated, eternally put-upon family caretaker.

The unstaged footage makes the Friedmans look like a group of oddballs. More important for “Capturing the Friedmans,” it presents to viewers the unguarded faces of the family. The Friedmans come off as fleshed-out people – hard to comprehend, but human.

“The question is, why were they willing to be so forward?” said Jarecki. “I think, to an extent, they were so used to being dehumanized in the media. The alleged perpetrators are described as monsters, and the family was so used to that, that the opportunity to show themselves as human beings, even flawed human beings, they welcomed that.”

Stirring up debate

“Capturing the Friedmans” is reaching rare popular and critical heights for a documentary. As far as documentaries that peek under the covers of family life, it is on a par with the exceptional 1994 film “Crumb.” David Denby, in the New Yorker, called it a masterpiece. Jarecki spoke for this interview from Locarno, Switzerland, where the film was having a festival screening in a 3,200-seat theater prior to its wider European opening.

“Capturing the Friedmans” covers a lot of ground. It works as a portrait of a bizarre family; as a fairly even-handed critique of the media, law enforcement and criminal justice system; as a crime story. It examines how memories shift over time, and under changing circumstances. There is an inarguable timeliness to the issues raised. Crimes against children make up a large chunk of the nightly news. Episodes of police misconduct are an every-week occurrence. And in a time when most everyone seems to have a firm opinion on Kobe Bryant and his accuser before a trail date is even set, the entanglement of the media in criminal cases is ripe for exploration.

Jarecki believes much of the popularity of his film is due to how open-ended it is. Even the police are shown from various sides: expressing concern for the Friedmans’ privacy at one time; cataloging an impossibly high number of incidents of abuse at another.

“This happens to be a year in America where things are black-and-white: We have good countries and bad countries, good evil dictators and bad evil dictators,” said Jarecki, who for the past two years has split his time between Rome, where he has worked on the music for “Capturing the Friedmans” with composer Andrea Morricone (son of famed movie scorer Ennio Morricone), and New York’s Upper East Side. “We get simplified versions of stories – people say that’s because we don’t have the time to deal with more sophisticated stories. I think people are hungry for a complex story.

“In this film, you have characters that are hard to read at first blush. You have a good man, Arnold Friedman, who has done some bad things. We see him in his full humanity.”

Away from the screen, Jarecki has sustained that complexity by consistently refusing to give a simple answer to the ultimate issue: innocent or guilty? He thinks “Capturing the Friedmans” is deserving of a deeper conversation, and says that he doesn’t aim to be “another person with another uninformed opinion.”

In both the film and in conversation, however, Jarecki leans toward doubting the guilt of Arnold and Jesse Friedman, or at least doubting their guilt to the extent charged by the police and prosecutors. And he makes his criticism of the government clear.

“Whatever you believe about the guilt or innocence, these people never had a chance. The case against them was contaminated at a very early stage,” he said. “Of all the people who lied to me during the course of making this movie – and there were a lot of them – I never caught Jesse in one of them. I caught Arnold lying.”

Jarecki is pleased to see the debate the film has stirred up. The day of our interview, he participated in an NPR show with a Brown University professor irate over the compassionate portrayal of convicted child-abusers. He is equally happy about a complaint he has received from theater owners: that audiences, engrossed in conversation about the film, have neglected to leave the theater.

Now Jarecki is in the enviable position of contemplating how to catch lightning again. But the former theater director, who has several short films to his credit, isn’t worrying about a subject for his next documentary. For the foreseeable future, Jarecki – and a good portion of the world – will be talking about “Capturing the Friedmans.”

Beyond that, Jarecki is working on a DVD version of the film. He contemplates it as a five-and-a-half-hour epic. The Friedmans are the rare family who merit such extensive investigation.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.coma


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