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
You really have to be open-minded watching this, because it deals with subject matter that's so easy for us to condemn without the will to examine. We have a man, Arnold, who is accused of child molestation after porn magazines are found in his possession. We have his son, Jesse, who is accused of being his accessory in the molestations. Jesse says that he was abused by his father at a young age and that he enjoyed the attention. Then Jesse says his lawyer made that up. A man slouched on a couch, inarticulate and seemingly placing himself in a sexual position while being interviewed for the film, gives testimony against the Friedmans that led to 35 criminal counts. Jesse claims he is innocent. Someone is lying.
This is rich, complex stuff, and the filmmaker doesn't put his own views into the film. He doesn't question the interviewees outright -- although he does "catch" one guy, and contrast different remembrances, some of which indict the Friedmans, others that wave away all accusations. The story gets told to us largely through Arnold's home videos, and so we're witness to the family's self-destruction. This is Shakespeare, and there's a shattering moment when Arnold's wife, Elaine, asks, "Where did this come from?"
The film is craftily put-together -- there's a shock left until the end, the kind of thing that calls into question what we've just seen -- and the filmmaker looks at the situation as a family drama, with the backdrop of the trial, where understandably furious parents try and attack Arnold ("You raped my son!"). But the film also has this sense of sleaze -- or, at least, the sense of something iffy: the sex is inherently "dirty" -- Arnold bought gay-related magazines, and the film has mentions of incest. There's a kind of public hysteria that exists, where people throw their hands up into the air when anything deviating from the sexual norm is mentioned, and refuse to even listen to an argument that suggests there might not actually be anything wrong. But I think it's important to stand back and analyze the situation before we make our decision about Arnold. He does, in fact, eventually admit to abusing one child, a son of a friend, so he is a molester; whether or not he abused the children that he taught and that is the subject of the documentary is another matter; my own feeling is that the evidence is pretty sketchy, and that he was made an example out of for possessing magazines. (And he does openly admit to having experimented sexually with his brother -- whose admission at the end of the film is revelatory -- and his lawyer says that Arnold expressed arousal at one young boy bouncing on his father's lap when the lawyer visited Arnold in jail.) It's my belief that there's nothing wrong with Arnold's pedophiliac desire and owning of child pornography. (Although obviously the purchasing of pornography fuels the industry which in turn exploits and abuses more children, but I'm talking specifically about his mental state.) If he didn't act on his desires, then he does not deserve to have his life and his family's life torn to shreds.
As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Arnold, this somewhat meek, nebbish figure, probably isn't the monster he's made out to be. One student made claims against him, we learn, to "get them off my back," meaning the investigators. That claim led to 16 criminal counts. Some of the charges against Arnold sound horrific, but are pretty unbelievable, like the idea he lined the children up naked in a leap frog position, and then proceeded to penetrate them one by one. (The simple mechanics of male-male intercourse don't make it that easy.) The police claimed that Arnold had stacks upon stacks of child (or, really, adolescent teen) pornography; yet his wife never managed to see them, and the photos of the house taken during the investigation show nothing. These are the reasons that prove Arnold's innocence, not the comments made, like the one by Jesse's friend, who says that he couldn't be a violent molester because he was so quiet in everyday life. (We all know how wrong-headed that idea is.) This is a terrific documentary; the investigation and the children's memories all swirling together, but what makes it so crushing is how it affects the family. The looks and the words and the shadows of doubt they cast on one another is far worse than any jail sentence. 9/10
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