Sunday, August 12, 2007

Capturing the Friedmans

I saw this movie over a week ago, and it's taken me this long to digest it in order to blog about it. It's a powerful film and one that is not easy to summarize. It was the third documentary in a summer series called "Crazy Love," at the Philoctetes Center here in New York. The other films were Sherman's March, and Grey Gardens.

Capturing the Friedman was directed by Andrew Jarecki who made millions from his creation of Moviefone. The background to the film is that he'd heard about this clown that was pretty popular in New York with birthday parties and he wanted to find out I guess what makes a person choose a career as a clown.

It turned out that the clown was a man by the name of David Friedman. As Andrew Jarecki started working on the film, he learned that David Friedman's father and brother had been accused of multiple counts of child molestation on Long Island in the late 1980's. Instead of focusing the film on David Friedman, Andrew decided to make the story of the Friedman's the focus of his movie.

He was aided by the fact that David Friedman and his brothers had taken copious 8MM films during their childhood. David Friedman has also filmed the family during the time that the Arnold Friedman and the youngest son, Jesse were accused and awaited trial.

I can't tell you how painful this movie was too watch. Just listening to the contradictory stories from the police, the family, some of the kids who were part of the computer classes that Arnold Friedman ran out of his home who claimed that no abuse took place, to the kids (now adults) who claimed that they were sexually abused, was harsh.

The simple facts of the case are this, Arnold Friedman was receiving child pornography from the Netherlands in the mail, which raised a red flag. After he was arrested for having child pornography, the police automatically made the assumption that since he was teaching kids, he must be molesting them. From there, Arnold's son Jesse, who helped out with the classes, and another teenager were accused of sexually abusing minors.

Here's where it gets fuzzy. Several of the children were clearly coerced into their testimonies, the other defendant was given the option of testifying against the Friedman's or going to jail for 50 years, and the stories of the children who claimed to be sexually abused, didn't match the stories of other students who were in the classes at the same time. Also, Arnold Friedman had also given piano lessons for years in his home, but none of those kids ever came forward as adults when the case made headlines to claim that they were abused. Of course, there could be a reason for that. The shame at having a trusted teacher molest you, not wanting even after several years to come forward.

The video footage that David Friedman took of his family during the time they were awaiting the trial is stomach churning, particularly the way the sons treat their mother, almost as if she were the enemy. The truth was that their mother, once she knew her husband had been looking at child pornography, had a hard time defending him. The sons wholeheartedly believed their father was innocent, and took her actions as a betrayal. But it was clear that this family was seriously dysfunctional.

At times, it almost seemed as if the footage had been staged, it was so theatrical. Both father and son eventually pleaded guilty for different reasons. Once Arnold Friedman admitted that he was a pedophile (although he claimed he had never touched his students), the chances of him being acquitted were slim. He eventually died in prison, and there is reason to believe that he committed suicide. He left an insurance policy to Jesse Friedman, probably so that Jesse would have money to mount an appeal once he got out of prison.

Jesse served 13 years, and now he claims that he only pled guilty on the advice of his attorney, and he wants his conviction appealed, for I guess getting bad advice. The middle son Seth didn't participate in the documentary, having basically fled the family to make a life for himself out West.

What's interesting about the documentary is that Andrew Jarecki doesn't take sides one way or the other during the film. He just lets the story unfold so that the audience can make up their own minds whether or not they believe in the Friedmans' innocence for which he's gotten a certain amount of flack.

I actually found it refreshing that he didn't take the Michael Moore approach, basically hammering the viewer over the head with his viewpoint. Still, the cops, the DA, and the judge in the trial feel that they have been misrepresented in the film, because Jarecki does raise questions about the way evidence was collected, and whether or not the children were led into confessing.

The DVD has more footage and extras that I haven't yet seen, but I kind of want to, although I'm not sure that I can sit through the movie again. I feel for Arnold Friedman's wife, learning that the man that you've been married to for over 20 years is a pedophile couldn't have been easy. What the film did do was let the viewer know that pedophiles aren't necessarily men in raincoats who hang around playgrounds. I remember when the movie Happiness came out, people were upset because the pedophile in that film seemed on the surface to be an ordinary suburban husband and dad. He wasn't a weird creep like the Jackie Earle Hailey character in Little Children.

That movie and this documentary just goes to show that everyone is not always what they seem on the surface. And who do you believe? Children who may have been led into confessing to something that didn't happen, or a man who is an admitted pedophile?


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