Capturing the Friedmans (15)

What do you think you know? And why should you know it?
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The Independent Culture

Andrew Jarecki's documentary Capturing the Friedmans is a modern American horror story, and like so many of those, it's set in the suburbs. Since Blue Velvet, we've learned to equate the sight of picket fences and lawn sprinklers (Jarecki can't resist the mandatory lawn sprinkler shot) with the deepest-hidden, most unavowable passions beneath a normal veneer. But what's most disturbing in Jarecki's film is not the apparent depravity unearthed in the case. Rather, Jarecki holds the Friedmans' story up to scrutiny so as to question our assumptions about normality and abnormality, appearance and interpretation. But that's a tall order for a narrative documentary and one that, finally, I'm not sure this one achieves in more than a teasing way.

Andrew Jarecki's documentary Capturing the Friedmans is a modern American horror story, and like so many of those, it's set in the suburbs. Since Blue Velvet, we've learned to equate the sight of picket fences and lawn sprinklers (Jarecki can't resist the mandatory lawn sprinkler shot) with the deepest-hidden, most unavowable passions beneath a normal veneer. But what's most disturbing in Jarecki's film is not the apparent depravity unearthed in the case. Rather, Jarecki holds the Friedmans' story up to scrutiny so as to question our assumptions about normality and abnormality, appearance and interpretation. But that's a tall order for a narrative documentary and one that, finally, I'm not sure this one achieves in more than a teasing way.

The Friedmans - Arnold and Elaine and three sons - were a middle-class family in the wealthy suburb of Great Neck, Long Island. In 1987, their house was raided after investigators found that Arnold, a respected teacher, had been receiving child pornography in the post. The police questioned many local boys who had taken part in the computer classes that Arnold taught in his basement, and lurid stories began to emerge of sexual games such as naked leapfrog, and of violence in which Arnold's youngest son Jesse had supposedly been an active participant. Arnold was tried, eventually pleading guilty, and died in jail; subsequently Jesse, then 19, was jailed for 13 years.

As the story unravels, it proves to be riddled with inconsistencies. Questions emerge about the alleged victims' conflicting testimonies, about the police interrogation tactics, about the use of hypnosis in eliciting answers. What is certain is that Arnold Friedman was a self-confessed paedophile, yet the suggestion that a bacchanalia of abuse took place in his home begins to look highly suspect.

Among Jarecki's interviewees are most of the surviving Friedmans (middle brother Seth declined to take part), and various detectives, attorneys, alleged victims and Great Neck residents, the most reliable-seeming of whom (but how can we know?) maintain that no abuse happened. Investigative journalist Debbie Nathan raises the question of false memory. But that is a moot term, since practically everyone in the film seems to suffer from false or at least eroded memory, from flawed perception and blind spots of one kind or another.

In fact, the Friedmans had their own supposedly objective mechanism for recording their memories: the movie camera. They filmed everything, all the time. More precisely, they mounted a non-stop performance of happy family life. Jarecki had access to a treasury of home movie footage - first Super-8, then video - in which the Friedman males joke around for posterity. Dad, a former Latin bandleader under the name "Arnito Rey", plays the piano, the boys do their back-garden vaudeville. They're a permanent family circus (eldest brother David, in fact, is a professional children's party clown). Even when things go to hell, they don't stop. David videos family arguments: we see the boys try to get the once-genial, increasingly taciturn Arnold to talk about what really happened. We see a brutally uncomfortable family Seder (a Jewish cermonial dinner); a knockabout session on the eve of Arnold's sentence; discussions en route to Jesse's trial.

Meanwhile, mother Elaine is militantly excluded from the troupe. Not only is she outside the performance, and herself reluctant to be filmed, she's also brutally judged by the boys. David sees her as crazy, humourless, manipulative. In fact, Elaine seems touchingly gauche, unworldly: with sublimely unwitting innuendo, she says of Arnold's illicit photos, "He just liked to look at them and meditate." It seems Elaine has contrived to misunderstand a lot, yet she emerges as the most lucid, possibly the strongest Friedman - certainly, the least prone to hysterical outpourings whenever there's a camera present.

The overall implication is that the Friedmans were scapegoated in a case of communal hysteria. However, Jarecki avoids imposing any conclusion on us (the film's tag-line is "You decide for yourself"). Arguably, this non-sensationalist approach sneaks sensationalism back in under the wire, pitching the film as a mystery story for us to unravel: a sort of novelty courtroom drama rather than a dispassionate documentary investigation in the classic vein. Jarecki has claimed the film is about "the elusive nature of truth", but this seems like mystification. Things either happened in the Friedman basement or they didn't. More of an issue, surely, is the American legal institution's inability to establish the truth, and the blindness of ordinary but flawed people to the truth about themselves. Most startling in this respect is David's inability to see how he is stigmatising Elaine while idealising Arnold.

We may think we learn a great deal about the Friedmans, but we shouldn't overestimate their home movies' revelatory power. The amount of footage makes the family look obsessively exhibitionist. But I suspect it's far more common than we think for families to record themselves constantly: this is surely a more active version of keeping the TV permanently on to avoid conversation. The Friedmans' comedy routines allow them to deny their real stresses, and during their later arguments, the camera is the one family member guaranteed not to blow its top; perhaps its presence is all that stops them flying at each other's throats.

The film's most painful moment is an anguished extract from David's video diary: "If you're not me," he warns, "you shouldn't be watching this... So turn it off." But we can't turn it off, because Jarecki chose not to. His subjects cooperated with him, but did they know what they were letting themselves in for? No doubt they hoped Jarecki would present their point of view to the world, or simply make them sympathetic - which he does, up to a point. Yet the Friedmans are finally exposed in a way they cannot have anticipated. Not only do we get a voyeuristic thrill out of their most excruciating private moments, but the Friedmans become figures in a widely-distributed entertainment. This may be a documentary, yet they are no less "characters" than, say, the fictionalised Erin Brockovich, or Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Jarecki's soundtrack use of the country song "Act Naturally" ("They're gonna put me in the movies, they're gonna make a big star out of me") may be his wry comment on the family's movie-making and on the questionable notion of "acting naturally", but it also raises ethical questions about making the Friedmans stars of their own real-life biopic, riveting though it is.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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