Capturing the Friedmans

One US documentary shows why it is imperative to pursue the truth - even in the ugliest situations.

Alan Miller

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I’m still getting used to going to the theatre in Manhattan and seeing celebrities – both performing and attending.

Sam Mendes’ production of Uncle Vanya had Kevin Kline, Edward Norton, Mike Nicholls and Salma Hayek in the audience. Long Day’s Journey Into Night not only had Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Dennehey in it, but Al Pacino at it. Like in the movies, big names guarantee a big audience on Broadway.

Celebrities have become the heroes of our dumbed-down age. Television has accelerated this trend, with celebrity commentators, celebrity judges, and celebrities in bit parts. Consequently, it’s increasingly difficult to get documentaries taken seriously in TV. Strange then, that documentaries should suddenly seem to be making their way on to the big screen.

A closer look, however, reveals that many of these are just an attempt to transfer small-screen successes to the cinema. The Real Cancun mimics the vile Uncovered series produced for Sky TV, following 16 American college students as they misbehave. Jackass The Movie takes the MTV team’s petulant ‘stunts’ and runs them for an entire movie.

Michael Moore at least attempted to grapple with some ideas in Bowling for Columbine – albeit in a one-sided sermon where he becomes a parody of himself. His next cinematic documentary, unfortunately entitled Farenheit 9/11, will further push the idea that Moore is an iconoclastic lone voice who ‘speaks truth to power’.

One documentary that has captured America’s attention is Capturing the Friedmans. The film examines an infamous case from Long Island, where Arnold Friedman and his youngest son Jesse were accused of molesting students while running computer classes from their home in the late 1980s.

Given society’s unhealthy obsession with this issue, I was wary of the film at first. Yet as I watched I became engrossed in the narrative. Here was an upper-middle class Jewish family, with decades of footage from 8mm film shot by Arnold, alongside later video footage by his eldest son David. Taken together, the film presented the unravelling of the family following charges of extreme physical abuse.

Everyone gets a say in the film – the law enforcers who dealt with the case, various boys who were identified as victims, and the Friedman family (with the exception of middle son Seth, who refused to be involved). As it unfolds, more questions are raised than answered: why were some students adamant that nothing could have taken place? Why were the police so adamant that abuse had occurred? Where was the evidence to back up the claims about Arnold and Jesse’s bizarre behaviour?

Each time I formed a picture in my mind about what might have happened, something new was revealed. First-time filmmaker Andrew Jarecki does this masterfully, involving us in the intricacies and inadequacies of the case. I’m not sure whether I buy Jarecki’s line that he just wanted to make a film about clowns (under the name Silly Billy, David Friedman is one of the most successful clown acts in Manhattan), which led him coincidentally to this story (1). He seems far too sharp for this to have been a coincidence.

Capturing the Friedmans won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The New York Times compared it to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, ‘also about the elusiveness of truth in human affairs’ (2). Yet far from ‘truth being elusive’, Capturing the Friedmans shows us why it is so imperative to pursue the truth at all times; to be rational, even in the ugliest situations; to challenge hysteria with clear-mindedness and oppose those who would silence debate when things get emotive.

It was disappointing to discover that Jarecki had consulted with an ethical adviser for the film, rather than trusting his own integrity as a filmmaker (3). But he has still managed to make a remarkable, engrossing movie. He cites Errol Morris as an influence. Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, a documentary about a policeman who was shot dead in Dallas, resulted in a new trial for Randall Adams, who was subsequently released as a result. Not so for the Friedmans; Jesse served over a decade in prison, and Arnold died after taking an overdose during his prison sentence.

On the way out of the cinema, people animatedly discussed their own verdicts on the case. There is no clearer sign of a successful documentary than its ability to kickstart public debate.

Alan Miller has just completed Eroica, a documentary about classical musicians. It will be shown on SBS Australia on 3 August 2003, and on PBS USA on 9 December 2003

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) An interview with Andrew Jarecki

(2) ‘What “Capturing the Friedmans” says about getting tough on crime’, Adam Cohen, New York Times, 6 July 2003

(3) 10 questions with Andrew Jarecki, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

(4) ‘Ground Zero or bust’, Frank Rich, New York Times, 13 July 2003

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