Documentary on the Friedmans, a seemingly typical, upper-middle-class Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes.
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In the late 1980's, the Friedmans - father and respected computer and music teacher Arnold Friedman, mother and housewife Elaine Friedman, and their three grown sons, David Friedman, Seth Friedman and Jesse Friedman - of Great Neck, Long Island, are seemingly your typical middle class American family. They all admit that the marriage was by no means close to being harmonious - Arnold and Elaine eventually got divorced - but the sons talk of their father, while also not being always there for them, as being a good man. This façade of respectability masks the fact that Arnold was buying and distributing child pornography. Following a sting operation to confirm this fact, the authorities began to investigate Arnold for sexual abuse of the minor-aged male students of his computer classes, which he held in the basement of the family home. Based on interviews with the students, not only was Arnold charged with and ultimately convicted of multiple counts of sodomy and sexual abuse of these ... Written by
The Friedmans Weren't Captured, They Submitted Entirely
Documentaries that focus on the lives of their subjects are intrinsically voyeuristic. The documentarian must be objective while often prone to being seductively enmeshed in his/her subjects' views of their lives.
"Capturing the Friedmans" takes this reality to a much deeper and excruciatingly raw level. Long before Arnold Friedman, a deeply respected and retired high school teacher who moved on to teaching computer skills when PCs were rare, and one of his son's, Jesse, became defendants in a widely reported and still remembered pedophile case, filming and taping each other was a family staple. What starts as a not uncommon family avocation turns infinitely darker as several of the family members seem compelled to record disturbing intra-family encounters that both enthrall and repel.
Based on a U.S. Post Office investigation leading to a search of the Friedman's Great Neck, N.Y. home it is immediately clear that the pater familias at the least was a dedicated, devoted collector of sickening homosexual kiddie porn. On that charge at the least he was fully eligible for and deserved a long prison sentence.
But the initial investigation yielded verbal complaints by boys that they were sexually abused during the computer training sessions in the Friedman home by both Arnold and his son, Jesse. Also living in the house were his wife, Elaine, and two other boys, David and Seth.
The police investigation led to myriad charges lodged against both Arnold and Jesse and the legal proceedings drew national media attention (which I well remember).
No forensic evidence existed to link either Friedman to the crimes let alone establish that they had occurred. All the evidence, which was never tested in court, came from kids questioned by police and, apparently in many instances, the kids were seriously encouraged by outraged parents who, themselves, had no factual basis on which to proceed.
Both Friedmans eventually and separately pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Arnold went to prison and subsequently committed suicide, leaving Jesse $250,000 in insurance proceeds. Jesse, who maintains his innocence to this day, served thirteen years of a six to eighteen year sentence.
One son, Seth, refused to participate in this project. The other son, David, is a high society children's birthday party clown in New York City known as "Silly Billy." He worries in the film if his career will be affected. How could it not be, especially as he is the angriest speaker on the screen. And not the most rational either.
On many levels this is a deeply disturbing film. First, the family members who cooperated by giving film to the director and allowing very free-wheeling interviews reflect the reality of a hopelessly dysfunctional family, people who had deep troubles long before the postal police showed up with a search warrant. Elaine is alternately revealing and guarded but it's clear that her union with the popular Arnold was disturbed, emotionally, sexually and even in terms of practical matters like childrearing.
The family films show the deterioration of the sons' relationship with their mother whom they hotly blame for supposedly not standing behind their father. She is savagely abused verbally in scene after scene. Arnold remains a very passive, almost detached witness of his family's self-immolation as he and Jesse await possible trials and almost certain imprisonment. At one point Arnold appears to be nothing more than an onlooker as his sons tear into his wife who gives back a spirited defense.
The most sympathetic character is Arnold's brother who can not recall Arnold's admitted and hardly self-serving statement that he engaged in sex with him when they were little kids. The brother's anguish about the dissolution of the family is heartfelt and affecting. He truly is a victim.
Beyond all the family sturm und drang is the legal story and it's troubling. This case took place while accustations of child abuse in daycare facilities flew through the headlines. An expert debunker of many such cases is on screen to offer her views. She resolves nothing but plants a kernel of doubt as to the state's case. It is clear, however, that there were more than a few instances when the rule of law succumbed to a miasmic hysteria.
A greater injection of skepticism comes from the back-to-back explanations by two involved detectives as to how to question juveniles who might have been victimized by sexual predators. One has the right answer, the other a technique proven to lead to false accusations.
What followed the investigation was the loding of so many charges against each defendant as to constitute an extraordinary episode of overcharging. Overcharging - hitting a defendant with every conceivable charge and instance of its commission - is common. It gives police much credit for clearing cases and prosecutors leverage in getting a plea deal. In the case of the Friedmans the plethora of charges, as opposed to whether each or both committed heinous offenses, is simply unbelievable. As even the prosecutor admits, not one child was injured or crying when picked up by parents at the home/computer school yet some claimed to have been anally sodomized dozens of times. That's just not possible.
What "Capturing the Friedmans" shows is that when a defendant like Jesse recants after pleading to so many counts it's impossible to ever be sure whether the allocution required at the guilty plea hearing was genuine or, as Jesse later claims, the inevitable needed confession for the best deal he could get to avoid life in prison.
My view as an experienced lawyer is that both were guilty of SOME offenses against young boys. Jesse's protestations of innocence have the scent of the eternally unrepentant malefactor. But I can't prove it and neither could the documentarian. Arnold's starting point as a fervid consumer of kiddie porn magazines makes it easier to believe he graduated to the next step. But, again, whether a jury could have so concluded beyond a reasonable doubt is something we can never know. David's defense of his dad and brother is so emotional and projected with the weight of many repetitions over the years as to be worthless.
We will never know what actually happened. This glimpse into the lives of an affluent family whose home life was rocky before the accusations is haunting, troubling. It demands that we think about what we do in the vital and right but sometimes off-kilter attempts to protect the young and punish their violators.
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