Movie Review: Capturing the Friedmans
Release Date: May 30, 2003
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
· Andrew Jarecki
· Arnold Friedman
· Elaine Friedman
· David Friedman
· Seth Friedman
· Jesse Friedman
· Howard Friedman
by Beth Gottfried
Published: July 25, 2003
In the aptly titled, "Capturing the Friedmans," ingenue filmmaker, Andrew Jarecki, does just that. He "captures the Friedmans": a seemingly average middle-class suburban Jewish family from Great Neck, Long Island. There is Elaine, the matriarch, Arnie, the patriarch, and sons, David, Seth, and Jesse. Together, Arnie and his sons share a very loving bond that is often manifested in their comical routines caught on camera by David. On the surface, very "My Three Sons," but as the footage relays the actuality of their lives presented a much more disturbing tale.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1987, Arnold Feldman and his youngest son, Jesse, were arrested on charges of over 40 counts of child molestation. The film documents the Friedmans' life over the course of the investigation to the present. Secrets are unleashed, bitterness ensues, loyalties are tested, and in the end, a family is destroyed. This kinda reality TV is not the kinda reality TV most people derive pleasure from. There is an element of the surreal in all of this. There are moments in the film when you're not quite sure how one family could encounter such bad fortune or if in fact Arnold and Jesse are really guilty how they both can come across with such humanity. But this is where we realize that Jarecki is really a mastermind of the camera. It is his interplay of the Friedmans' home footage and his own interviews that really set the mood of the film and in the end puts the onus on us to determine what really transpired...or simply to determine for ourselves that what really happened is irrelevant. (since we will never know)
Jarecki spends a great deal of the film painting an effective landscape of the community from which the Friedmans emerged. He shows how cultural dynamics, group competitiveness, and the desire to one-up in the affluent suburb influenced the eventual outcomes of these two men. By his own admission, a parent of one the molested students confessed that in community meetings, parents would challenge each other saying, "My son had 6 acts committed against him." Another would say "Well, mine had 7..." I'm sure this is a contest no parent wanted to win, but nonetheless this admission weakens the validity of claims, and moreover shows the extent to which this case really is a sign of its times. The 80's being a marginal throwback to McCarthy days of yore (re: mass hysteria) with a modern-day twist: child abuse scandals.
The desire to claim "victim" status calls into question who the real victims are in the movie. (if there really are any) After having sat through a 2-hour film with probably 40 mins of Elaine Friedman coverage, I would have to say according to Elaine, it was her. "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt" and Elaine Friedman reeks of passive aggressive tendencies and active indifference to the world around her. She dismisses her "former" life with her sons and her husband and even admits that "the only thing between she and Arnold were the three kids between them that they yelled at." She doesn't seem regretful. It's hard for me to see Elaine as a victim because it's really difficult for me to like her. At the most, I feel sorry for her. It appears that she doesn't feel betrayed that her husband was a pedophile or that he had in fact admitted to her that he had sodomized one boy, but when she found out it was 2 boys, she was livid. This sense of logic is lost on me. As is her passive acceptance of her family's subsequent unraveling.
The outcome of the Friedmans is dismal. Arnold kills himself in jail, Jesse was released recently after serving a 13-year sentence, and David, initially the subject of the film, appears to be one of the saddest clowns ever. Elaine, ironically enough, is the only one who really gets her second chance. She divorced Arnold in jail, remarried, and lives on a cottage called "Peaceful Pond" (or something like this) You get my drift.
"Capturing the Friedmans" won "Best Documentary" at Sundance this year and as such has wowed audiences nationwide, receiving much critical acclaim. I definitely think the film is original and is worthy of all the hype. As David says of his father, quite poignantly halfway through the film, "It wasn't until he died, I realized how much of an impact he had on my life." The same words are prophetic of Jarecki's masterpiece. It wasn't until I left the theater, i fully realized the impact that his movie had on my own life.