Tolstoy's Anna Karenina famously opens: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The brood at the centre of Andrew Jarecki's award-winning, troubling documentary Capturing the Friedmans proves not only the truth of that epigram, but also just how atomised each unhappy family can be, every member trapped in his or her own subjective prison-house view of collective misery. A mystery wrapped in enigma, and festooned with conflicting opinions and battles raging still over who told and is telling the truth, this is simply one of the most compelling - and controversial - films on show at the Edinburgh film festival this month.
Capturing the Friedmans is the story of how an allegation of child abuse, levelled first at a middle-class computer teacher from Great Neck on New York's Long Island, and then at his son, devastates an entire family. It sounds like the kind of awful, all-too-ordinary story you read about every day in the paper and tut over as you turn the page to see what's on TV. But what gives this film its extraordinary immediacy is its incorporation of footage shot by the family before, during and after the arrest and trial of the father, Arnold Friedman, who pleaded guilty, and his son Jesse, who served 13 years in prison and was released only recently. As the film's punning title suggests, there are several attempts to capture the Friedmans at play here, one by the law, and several by the family and the film-maker themselves, but, as the present tense implies, the process can never be completed.
The fact that the Friedmans were "early adopters" who, after years of using Super- 8 cameras, bought their first camcorder in 1983, means that we get to see both the screaming arguments and the brooding, noisy silences once all hell breaks loose. Flies on the family's pinewood walls, we watch the debates about how Jesse should plead, and the denials from his two older brothers, Seth and David Friedman, that their beloved father or brother are in anyway guilty. There are even incongruously light moments, including the three brothers running through a Monty Python routine hours before Jesse is sentenced.
No pat answers are offered as to who is telling the truth (the movie's US tagline was: "Who do you believe?") As it unfolds, nearly every major player connected to the case reveals a conflicting point of view: from Jesse's mother Elaine, a depressive, who accepted that the charges against her husband rang true and persuaded her son to plea-bargain despite his protestations of innocence; to some of the now-grown young men who accused them, the cops who arrested them, the lawyers that represented them, and the therapists who got to know them later. All except Seth (who refused to take part), and Arnold (who died in prison), speak directly to Jarecki's camera, adding more spinning plates and last-minute revelations to the mix.
After winning the Grand Jury prize for best documentary at Sundance last January, Capturing the Friedmans opened in the US to the kind of raves that most directors, let alone one making his feature debut, would only fantasise about.
Perhaps the most remarkable - and daring - thing about the film is that it humanises child abusers, a feat that goes very much against the grain of a society that wants them simply to be salivating monsters in raincoats, preferably with a scarlet 'A' tattooed on their foreheads for easy identification. The film leaves us in little doubt that, even if Arnold didn't abuse all the boys he was alleged to have abused, he definitely abused some. Moreover, he did order child pornography, struggled with his demons, admitted to his urges in his diary, and was also - the one thing on which his family agrees, it seems - a very kind and loving father. (There is the not inconsiderable matter of whether he did abuse Jesse, a point claimed by Jesse in court himself and on television, but later disavowed by him as a ploy to gain leniency.)
It all started rather innocuously over three years ago. Andrew Jarecki is the brother of Eugene Jarecki, the documentarian behind such acclaimed films as The Trials of Henry Kissinger. Andrew made a small fortune from selling off the business he founded, Moviefone, a service in the US that tells you what time films are showing at certain theatres. Financially able to reinvent himself as a film-maker, he decided, after making a short called Swimming, to make his first feature about children's birthday-party clowns in New York City. "There's a weird little community of people who do that, which is like 400-strong, and they all call each other by their clown names. You know, Princess Priscilla is best friends with Professor Putter, and so on. It's just a very odd community, so I thought it would be just a light little film," he explains.
The kingpin on the kiddie-party circuit was David Friedman, who goes by the clown handle of Silly Billy. "He's the No 1 clown in New York City, the guy to beat if you want to get to the top of the birthday-party circuit. And the more we talked about his life, the more it became clear to me that his stories about his family were these pre-packaged, innocuous nonsense stories that didn't go anywhere. Knowing what I know about families, it just didn't feel right to me, so, at a certain point, I discovered that he had this secret story."
The way Jarecki found out about the Friedmans' tragic past is typically bizarre. "David wouldn't let me talk to his mother for the longest time," Jarecki explains. "He said, 'My mother's crazy, a lunatic, she's stupid, an idiot....' I said, 'You say so much unkind stuff about your mother, if she is crazy then we show that in the film, otherwise it just looks like you're crazy'. And he said, 'Alright, that's a good point'. Also, I knew that he'd been on Candid Camera, the TV show, when he was a kid which was extremely ironic in itself. That episode was like the most famous moment of his life at that time. This in a family very fixated on documentation. So I got a copy of the episode and we made a deal I could film his mother in exchange for the copy."
"I ended up going to talk to Elaine, and, after a lot of humming and hawing, she brought me into this weird room in her house. She left me in there and I saw on the desk, on a writing tablet, a letter to the editor of some publication that she never sent. It seemed like it was addressed to me in a way, maybe left out unconsciously. The letter said: 'A person of faith, a deeply religious person, I was always brought up in the Jewish faith to believe truth and justice were the most important things, and truth and justice were never a part of this case.'" Jarecki emphasises the words "this case". "And that was the first time I knew there even was a case."
Shortly after learning about the case and trial, Jarecki decided to ditch the clown film and start afresh with one on the Friedmans. Eventually, David gave him the footage he had shot at the time. There are moments when David tells his most private thoughts to the camera alone, saying, "this is for me, by me", and has said in subsequent interviews that the reason he agreed to let that footage be used for the film was to create some kind of memorial for his family. And in a way, it is - for all its horrors, this is a very affectionate portrait of a family undergoing an irrevocable fission.
For Jarecki, the process of honing a two-hour film out of 50 hours of video footage shot by David, plus all the interviews he'd shot himself, was one of his biggest challenges. "I was trying to somehow mirror the way that I learned about this story, which is kind of a tortuous process," he says. "And also, the way you think it's one thing, and then it's another, and then that changes.
"For example, the detective Frances Galasso, when I first met her she seemed intelligent, cautious, and to understand the dangers, so I thought she must have done it right. Then, in the film, five minutes later she totally impeaches herself by saying that there were these foot-high stacks of child pornography all around the house - but photographs in the film prove that there were no foot-high stacks of pornography anywhere in the house.
"My experience was of having my expectations dashed constantly, and thinking that I'm going to trust somebody and then not trusting them, like hearing Jesse's version of a story and then his lawyer's version contradicting it. And I thought that was essential in terms of maintaining the drama of the story, which makes it more cathartic and emotional. It's not like you're standing there at a big distance. I also knew there needed to be intimacy, you need to feel you're really close, like you're inside it to some extent, unravelling the mystery."
There are still enough knots in the story to suggest it may never be unravelled. Jarecki recounts a funny anecdote about showing the film at the Tribeca film festival immediately prior to its release, at which many of the participants attended. During the Q&A session following the screening, they started standing up one by one, arguing with each other about who was right, climaxing with Jesse popping up at the back with an observation about his father that made the whole audience swivel their heads in unison.
And what does Jarecki himself think? He laughs and takes a deep breath. "I found that everyone in the film impeaches themselves at one time or another except Elaine - I think she's very honest, she tells you what she knows. "You could say she's crazy or she wasn't paying attention, but I think she's straight. Jesse I find straight. David, it's a total construction. You show him a piece of evidence and he goes, 'But what does that mean, that evidence?'.
"If you show the same thing to Jesse, who is thoughtful about his situation, and who was in jail and totally stands behind his claim of innocence, he says, 'Well, it's complicated. I mean, my dad was a paedophile, and not just in his mind. He was also molesting children. Now, the fact that I got sent down the same chute that he did is a problem, something that was very unfortunate for me, and I've had to spend a lot of years dealing with that'.
He's so articulate about it, but he never says in the film 'My mother is horrible, my father is great'. He says, 'Look, he's my father. I loved him, but he did some bad things, too'."
'Capturing the Friedmans' will be screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 16, 17, and 22 August (tickets: 0131-623 8030), and will be released nationwide in February 2004Reuse content