Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 documentary, “Capturing the Friedmans”, is the tragic story of an affluent family from Long Island, NY. , that is falling apart after Arnold and Jesse Friedman are both charged with unspeakable crimes against children. In the opening interview, David, the eldest of three sons, begins to tell the viewer of his fond childhood memories, and the film appears to be about the life of a clown. But the theme quickly changes direction only moments later, as we hear the beginnings of what will eventually lead to the emotional death of a family unit.
In 1987, in a seemingly normal middle-class family, Arnold and Jesse (David’s father and brother) are charged with sexual abuse and molestation. Arnold Friedman is a Columbia graduate and a school teacher, and his wife Elaine, a mother and housewife. They, and their three sons David, Seth, and Jessie appear happy, before the story begins to unfold. The power and validity of this film comes not from its controversial subject matter, but more from the unbiased way in which the story is presented. Jarecki gives the viewer facts that could be used to argue for both sides.
The bond between the parents was broken, Arnold and Elaine appeared stuck in a loveless relationship, and the boundaries between the parents and the children became less pyramid like and more horizontal as the power shifted. Arnold seems to be the only one in the family who had maintained strict lines of personal privacy, and he held that power over his wife and children. When Arnold fell, it was described by Elaine’s metaphor “If there is a rowboat and its sinking, and the rowboat is tied to a rock, you have to disconnect the rowboat, even though the rock is sinking. “- Not very eloquent, but the meaning is clear.
There is use of juxtaposition in such scenes as when Elaine is asked a question about what she knew, and her face is almost sympathetic toward Arnold momentarily, but she breaks out in a rant instead. It was clear from early in the film, that Elaine has been in denial for some time. She is seen as a woman who is very emotionally removed and indifferent to the world around her during her interviews for the film. The best evidence, is how she exhibits little feeling when acknowledging that her husband was a pedophile, and even telling the audience that she was aware that Arnold sodomized a young boy.
She seems almost accepting of the idea that her family is coming apart. She clearly doubts her husband and son’s innocence, and is bitter about the four men ganging up on her. In one of the interviews, she let’s this slip out- “I can’t say too much about it – they were… we were… a family. “- “they” turns to “we”, and it speaks volumes. It suggests her withdrawal from the family unit, and of being an outsider- finally coming true later when she divorces Arnold. While the family is seen as dysfunctional, and Arnold admittedly a pedophile, the cases that were piling up against him seem absurd.
The most difficult part of the story to believe, is that numerous children could be molested over the course of years, and not one would bring this information to an authority. David Friedman was obsessed with the camera, and did well capturing father and brother’s struggle and subsequent demise. Few boundaries are left uncrossed as he documents fervently the dying relationship between his parents. Ironically, David becomes a clown for a living. Jesse holds tight to his denial of the allegations, he seems to be the one keeping his family so adamantly in denial of their unfortunate fate.
While at first Jesse claimed complete innocence to all accounts, after his father’s sentence he accepted the charges and attempted to claim his own victimization by his father. His odd behavior on the day he is to be sentenced, hints at deeper emotional issues. Jarecki succeeds in making a clear case that Arnold is guilty, even by his own admission, of something. He also makes the case that the police handled the investigations so badly, that they drove a man to suicide, and the rest of his family to destruction. But the film leaves many unanswered questions, and haunts the mind long after the credits roll.