Capturing the Friedmans

Director: Andrew Jarecki

(U.S.A.| 2003. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 107 mins.)

After Thanksgiving Day 1987, the Friedmans could never go back to being an ordinary middle-class family in the ordinary middle-class community of Great Neck, Long Island. Acting on a tip-off that respected teacher Arnold Friedman had received child pornography through the post, police arrested him and his teenage son Jesse on charges of molesting a number of children who attended computer classes in the family’s basement. Media outrage notwithstanding, the case was far from cut-and-dried, as Andrew Jarecki’s brilliant documentary contrasts the dearth of material evidence with the authorities’ determination to secure a conviction—even if it entailed detectives browbeating vulnerable kids into testifying they’d been abused.
This story of an apparent miscarriage of justice would be compelling enough on its own, but what lends Capturing the Friedmans its head-spinning complexity is the inclusion of the home videos in which the eldest son David (now a successful children’s entertainer) assiduously recorded the family’s acrimonious confusion as the legal net tightened around them. Pitched alongside contemporary news footage and recent interviews with investigating officers and lawyers, you’d expect this insider’s viewpoint to clarify what really happened. Surprisingly perhaps, it only adds to the accumulation of wildly differing accounts of the events: ‘truth’ in the end is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of seeming innocence and errant sexuality, guilty secrets and divided loyalties, questionable judicial procedure and damaged lives. Captivating in its compassion, disturbing in its details, this is undoubtedly one of the films of the year.

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