Monday, June 8, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Capturing the Friedmans" (2003)

I don’t review a lot of documentaries here in this space — and by “not many,” I mean I believe this is the very first one. Like silent films, they're so different from the modern conception of narrative fiction movies as to almost represent a distinct art form.

Done right, documentary films are closer to journalism than "storytelling." And obviously given my background, I take journalism very seriously.

I've grown to appreciate documentary films more and more as I've gotten older. I make no bones about preferring the old-school method of objectively exploring a subject rather than just making personal screeds a la Michael Moore. "Capturing the Friedmans" definitely falls into the former category. It was nominated for an Oscar and won the grand jury prize at Sundance.

A word on objectivity: No, it's not entirely possible, at least in the purest sense. All of us bring our biases and conceptions into every endeavor. But being objective is more an ethos than a state of mind. It's almost like the scientific method, where we're allowed to go in with a thesis, but we must rigorously test it against the actual information produced.

Being objective doesn't mean we're blank slates who explore a topic with robot-like catatonia of the conscious. It does mean we are capable of allowing for the possibility to be proved wrong or change our minds.

Director Andrew Jarecki performs the ultimate exercise in objectivity with "Friedmans," because the real subject turns out to be his own ambivalence.

The movie explores a famous child molestation case from the late 1980s, in which a father and son were both convicted of sodomizing and abusing young boys while taking computer classes at the Friedman family home in Great Neck, an upper-middle-class Long Island suburb.

Jarecki pretty clearly went into this project because he felt an injustice had been done. But he painstakingly presents all sides of the story, highlighting gaping holes in both the cases of the prosecution and defense, and leaves it up to the audience to form their own take.

At the end, we're still uncertain if Arthur and Jesse Friedman were monstrous sexual abusers or merely eccentric men who got caught up in a wave of hysteria and shoddy investigative tactics. Not only does Jarecki not try to force the issue by imposing his viewpoint, he lets the ambiguity become the aesthetic.

The real soul of "Capturing the Friedmans" is an exploration of the concept of reality versus perception, the knowable and the confounding.

The way Jarecki launched the project is the stuff of legends. He was making a short film about David Friedman, who was the top birthday clown in all of New York City. Donning big floppy shoes, suspender pants and oversize glasses, he entertains the offspring of the city's well-to-do.

But David was also the son of Arthur, a high school science teacher and former band leader, and older brother to Seth and Jesse. A theatrical personality, David shared his family story with the filmmaker, and the focus quickly shifted to darker strains.

I think what catapulted "Capturing the Friedmans" out of the ranks of standard documentary movies is that the Friedman men were videophiles who seemingly recorded every aspect of their lives. Even as the family was breaking down into pieces at the prospect of their patriarch and youngest child spending the rest of their lives in prison, David kept his cameras rolling. We get to see them in their most desperate hours -- including David's "video journal" in which he warns at the outset no one is permitted to view it except himself.

Arthur was caught receiving child pornography, which prompted police to start interviewing the dozens of boys who had enrolled in computer classes in the Friedman home over the years. A few testified to the most outlandish acts -- such as Jesse and his father "leapfrogging" a line of squatting boys to sodomize them one at a time -- and it soon snowballed into a major investigation.

The film talks to the actual detectives, prosecutors and judge in the case, and without overtly condemning them elicits how they essentially fed testimony to their young, pliable witnesses. Some only confirmed the abuse after being pressured by their parents or the cops, or even revealed it during highly dubious hypnosis sessions.

There are even interviews with a couple of alleged victims, now adults, who seem generally credible -- whether or not anything happened, they certainly believe it did. And Jarecki talks to other students of Arthur's classes who vehemently avow to never experiencing or witnessing anything out of the ordinary aside from tinkering on computers.

Eventually, the two Friedmans were confronted with such a mountain of evidence and charges -- more than 100 acts of abuse apiece -- that they felt bullied by their attorneys and the family matriarch, Elaine, into entering guilty pleas. Arthur ended up killing himself with an overdose while in prison. (Mostly, it's suggested, to secure an insurance settlement for his youngest son.) Jesse finished his sentence about a dozen years ago and continues to try to prove his innocence to this day.

All of the Friedmans -- except Seth, who declined to participate -- come across as seemingly normal people with interiors that are opaque, possibly even to themselves.

Interviews with people Arthur confided in, including his gay brother Howard, confirm that he suffered in a cloistered, closeted existence and harbored a vile attraction to young boys. He even admitted to molesting one boy -- but years earlier, long before the alleged crimes that sent him to prison.

Elaine is the most sphinx-like, a woman who seems to mostly resent all the trouble and frustration the criminal case brought into her quiet family life. She harbored her suspicions about Arthur's inclinations, but was apparently willing to ignore them if it kept stability in the household.

Her relationship with her sons, especially David, are seen to be permanently damaged during the course of filmmaking. For her part, Elaine feels ganged up on by the close relationship between the Friedman men, with some justification. For instance, she's mortified by having these intimate family arguments videotaped, which under the circumstances would seem to be the most normal reaction a person could have.

Was Arthur Friedman a pedophile? Jarecki's film patiently lays out the evidence that seems to conclude that he did feel attracted to boys, and acted upon that feeling at some point in his life. But it seems unlikely that his computer glasses were the den of parading sodomy and abuse that the criminal against him alleges.

As for Jesse? We're left feeling uncertain. His tendency to joke and banter in the videotapes -- even on the courthouse steps while awaiting sentencing -- make him undeniably less sympathetic. But no more guilty.

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