I have often been asked the difference between movie reviews and film criticism; and after much thought, I’ve decided the answer is about one week. That’s my excuse, anyway, for not having written until now about Andrew Jarecki’s highly praised debut feature, Capturing the Friedmans. The picture has undergone a metamorphosis since its release: changing from a made-for-TV documentary (produced through HBO) into a kind of celluloid soapbox, from whose top any number of orators can speak. If I’ve been slow to climb up, it’s because I wanted to hear the other speeches.
They have concerned both the subject matter of the film and the nature of its materials–which is telling, since the story is inflammatory in mere paraphrase. It concerns a well-respected high school teacher in Great Neck, Long Island, Arnold Friedman, who in the mid-1980s attracted the notice of postal inspectors for having received man-on-boy pornography. A search of Friedman’s house turned up many such items, along with the roster of a computer class he taught privately in his basement, to a student body that was apparently all-boy. By means of persistent questioning of the students–aided at times by hypnosis–the police brought forward dozens of complaints of sexual abuse against Friedman and his youngest son, 18-year-old Jesse, who had helped teach the class.
After bail was posted, Arnold was reduced to shuffling around the kitchen in mute humiliation, while his wife, Elaine, railed at him (now, at last, she knew why she was so neglected), and their three sons railed at her in turn. We needn’t strain to imagine the gestures and vocal tones. We see and hear them as if at first hand–because the eldest son, David, had bought a video camera, and the footage he obsessively recorded of his wretched family is now a major part of this film.
So, as its title suggests, Capturing the Friedmans cries out for commentary on two overlapping topics. First is the question of whether the police were right to apprehend Arnold and Jesse. Did the Friedmans violate boys, or did the accusations condense out of an atmosphere of anxiety and self-righteous anger? The second question regards our right to take pictures of people, or even to look at such images. What degrees of violation are involved in using child pornography; following the TV news coverage of a juicy indictment; keeping a camera trained at all times on the members of your family; paying ten bucks to sit in a theater and gape at someone else’s family breakdown?
To its credit, Capturing the Friedmans urges the latter question on its audience. Early on, Jarecki puts on the screen part of a video diary that David Friedman recorded in 1988. “If you’re not me, you shouldn’t be watching this,” David says to the viewer. “Turn it off.” But the footage plays on, as David breaks into screaming, wracking sobs. I felt I’d crossed a line by watching–a sense of trespass that would recur many times, since Jarecki repeatedly maneuvers the viewer into an appalling intimacy with the Friedmans. He does so, of course, with footage that David willingly supplied.
In fact, David has been so cooperative that he’s shown up at theaters with the film’s editor and co-producer, Richard Hankin, to conduct impromptu postscreening discussions. I happened to catch one of these as I sat in a full house one recent Saturday night. The talk confirmed what I’d already concluded from the film: that David hopes Capturing the Friedmans may clear his father’s name (to the degree that anything can) and exonerate his brother Jesse. On the evidence of the audience’s response, David’s trust in the filmmakers has not been misplaced.