CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS directed by Andrew Jarecki, produced by Jarecki and Marc Smerling. An Odeon release. 107 minutes. Opens Friday (July 25). For review, venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 68. Rating: NNNNN
The story prompts all kinds of cheap jokes about clowns, but that was the way it began. "I started out making a movie about professional birthday-party clowns in New York," says director Andrew Jarecki. "I was working with David Friedman, who's the guy in New York who does that.
"After working with David for a few months, I discovered he had a secret story. It came to me in little tiny hints. He would sometimes say, you know, 'My brother's upstate, in college,' or he would say, 'There are some things I don't want to talk about.'
"It was only after I started to pursue those missing pieces that I discovered there was this remarkable story about David's family. It was such a shocking but complex story, I put the clown movie on hold."
Capturing The Friedmans, it's safe to say, is more compelling than any clown movie. In 1988, police burst in on David Friedman's father, Arnold, and charged him with possessing child pornography. Then, when they discovered he taught a computer class for neighbourhood kids in his home, all hell broke loose. The neighbourhood erupted in rage and hysteria. Both Arnold Friedman and David's youngest brother, Jesse, were charged with multiple counts of child sex abuse. The family tore itself to pieces.
Capturing The Friedmans won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Festival, and it's a landmark film. It's capable not only of launching furious post-film debates among viewers, but also of challenging the American justice system to look at how it pursues such cases.
The success of the film depends on two things: Jarecki's precision in revealing information, and the prevalence of home video.
Once his family became pariahs in Great Neck, New York, David Friedman went out and bought a video camera to document the domestic carnage.
"The police would have us believe that David Friedman was shooting this videotape because he was completely disconnected from reality and totally irrational," Jarecki says on the phone from New York.
"David's story is a little more plausible, that the reason he started shooting this videotape and bought the camera to begin with was because he knew that his father was going to go to jail in six weeks. He was home on house arrest. He knew his father would go to jail for the rest of his life. He wanted to have a record of his father for his own kids.
"Once he was shooting the videotape and things started to go haywire, he couldn't stop shooting. He felt like somebody had to have a photographic record."
Jarecki takes time in the film to paint a portrait of a family in which the three sons bonded with their chemistry teacher father over jokes and music. The mother, Elaine Friedman, was often an outcast in her own home.
"The Friedmans are a kind of vaudeville family," Jarecki says. "It's very gag-based, joking around. They're a musical family. Arnold is simultaneously a serious teacher and a mambo bandleader who changes his name to Arnito Rey, which has got to be the goofiest name for a middle-aged Jewish science teacher ever."
That episode in Arnold Friedman's life comes early in Capturing The Friedmans. Slight and amusing as it is, it serves as a clue to a man at odds with what life has laid out for him. But only a clue. Jarecki refuses to give answers to what actually happened, because he says he can't possibly know.
"It's one of the interesting things about the truth," he says. "As a filmmaker, you feel like if you spend enough time with these people you'll get clarity. But it's like a telescope. You can focus it to a point where everything looks pretty clear, but a little past that it becomes blurry again. I feel like this film is living right in that zone of focus."