Capturing the Friedmans (15)

Darkness visible: a gripping record of a family in crisis with the law

"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" was Tolstoy's famous line. The observation seems especially pertinent in the case of the Friedmans, a middle-class Jewish-American family whose disgrace and eventual implosion are recorded in this deeply troubling documentary. What became of them was indeed unhappy, and unhappy in a way beyond most people's imagining; if presented as fiction it would have been lambasted as prurient and sensation-seeking. Even in an age when reality TV has assaulted the notion of privacy in the name of public entertainment, Capturing the Friedmans delivers a punch that vibrates right down to your toes. Here is dysfunction to make the Osbournes look like the Partridge Family.

What surprises, and disturbs, is the apparent ordinariness from which tragedy sprang. Arnold Friedman, a retired schoolteacher, had lived with his wife Elaine in the affluent suburb of Great Neck, Long Island, for 30 years, and latterly taught computer classes from home. They had raised three sons, David, Seth and Jesse, and to judge from the Super-8 footage of their holiday frolics and high jinks they looked like a close, even happy, family. Their lives began to unravel one day in the mid-1980s when Arnold sent off for some child pornography from the Netherlands. Unbeknown to him, a postal inspector intercepted the package; the authorities investigated, and uncovered a stash of child pornography in Arnold's office, hidden behind the piano. It was a harbinger of terrible things to come. On Thanksgiving Day in 1987, the police raided the Friedman home and arrested Arnold and his 18-year-old son Jesse on charges of repeated sexual abuse of boys who attended the computer classes.

This incendiary material would have been enough in itself for a film, but the director, Andrew Jarecki, also had an incredible stroke of luck. It transpired that the oldest son, David, had made videotapes of his family during the turbulent weeks and months leading up to the trials - tapes which Jarecki interleaves with his own interviews with Elaine, Jesse, David and Arnold's brother, Howard. (Seth, the middle son, chose not to be interviewed, and Arnold had died in 1995). We watch the family goofing around, arguing over dinner, talking about the case and, on the night before Arnold begins a prison sentence, prancing mambo-style around the living room. Not surprisingly, hysteria bubbles just beneath the hilarity: there's an awful lot of talking, but hardly any listening. The family dynamic is sadly divisive: the boys get along wonderfully with Arnold, but regard their mother with an impatience bordering on contempt. She cuts a fascinatingly bewildered figure, and provokes an ambivalent response: you feel sympathy for her in being deceived by her husband for so long, and for being excluded by her sons, yet you also register a lack of warmth and humour (her mouth is drawn down in almost a cartoon parody of lugubriousness). She talks in that rather solemn, halting way that makes certain people seem not only stupid but heartless. Describing her marriage to Arnold she recalls, "There was really nothing between us except for these children we yelled at".

Jarecki marshals all this with exemplary tact and impartiality and, as well as interviewing the family, draws on testimony from policemen, journalists, attorneys and several of the Friedmans' alleged victims. Were these children systematically abused in the basement of the Friedman house, or are Arnold and Jesse victims of a witch hunt? One man, his face shaded, asserts that he was raped; another insists that nothing happened at all. The police seem measured and reasonable, yet their investigation turns out to have been highly dubious. One cop acknowledges the danger of "leading" the children with questions; another seems to have prompted confessions from them in exactly that way. The sheer weight of testimony appears to damn the Friedmans, yet beyond the discovery of Arnold's porn collection there's not a shred of physical evidence - no blood, no bruises, no incriminating stains. There wasn't a single complaint, prior to the arrests, from any of the children, nor had any parents noticed that their child might have been under stress.

As the arguments pile up for and against, the case becomes ever murkier. Jarecki's even-handed approach to his material turns his film into an almost abstract rumination on the unknowability of others. One has to decide who's telling the truth and who's in denial and parroting what he's convinced himself is the truth. In this regard, the oldest son, David, is at once the most vociferous and the hardest to read. A professional birthday-party clown in Manhattan, he knows the value of a brave face, and absolutely refuses to believe his father did anything, even when Arnold, incontrovertibly proven a paedophile, pleads guilty and goes to prison. The confidence in his old man is only slightly less alarming than the rage he feels towards his mother for not standing by her husband. It remains mysterious why he insisted on filming his family and their downfall - did he imagine that it would one day make a movie? Well, he was right; but that streak of showmanship doesn't inspire trust, and in one instance may have done his brother's cause real harm. On the day Jesse awaits sentencing, we see him horsing around for David's camera, a display of bravado that a police officer on the case interprets as a lack of remorse. That suspicion might be untenable, but watching it now doesn't encourage you to believe in Jesse's innocence.

Whichever side you come down on, the film is a gripping record of a family in crisis with the law and, more poignantly, with itself: Strindberg in Long Island. Movies from Blue Velvet to American Beauty have been telling us about the darkness that lurks behind the white picket fence, but in such a way that it never seemed to matter whether you believed it or not. Jarecki's film will change that. In its patient, nuanced way, Capturing the Friedmans peels back layers of guilt and recrimination to expose suburban America as an infinitely stranger, and sadder, place than we could have known.

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