Family Portrait

Andrew Jarecki captured the Friedmans, perhaps to free them

Two years ago, a first-time filmmaker named Andrew Jarecki paid a visit to the Concord, Massachusetts, home of a man who might draw him a road map to his future. Jarecki arrived at the house, belonging to a Pulitzer Prize-winning child psychiatrist, after already traveling a circuitous route and taking an unimaginable detour. In 2000, Jarecki was in the middle of making a whimsical film about a beloved New York City clown, real name David Friedman, who entertains at children's parties when the director discovered the clown had a tragic secret. At first, the clown dropped only tantalizing hints, telling the filmmaker that his mother was insane, that Jarecki couldn't talk to her, that he was a smart guy who could figure out what he was talking about. The clown was angry, and Jarecki wanted to know why. He would find out in short order: The clown's father had been arrested and imprisoned on charges of possession of kiddie porn and of molesting dozens of young boys, while the clown's youngest brother had been sentenced to 18 years in prison for related sexual-assault crimes. The case had been big news in the New York suburb in which the family once lived. It also smashed the family to dust and scattered it to the wind.

Suddenly, a movie about a clown seemed more than a little irrelevant. But what Jarecki now had on his hands--a documentary called Capturing the Friedmans, supplemented by more than 50 hours of happy-then-horrible home movies and audio recordings made by the family throughout its abbreviated existence--was now overwhelming. The film, once so light, suddenly weighed a ton on the filmmaker's chest. He needed a doctor, or at least a psychiatrist.

So Jarecki, through a mutual friend, contacted Robert Coles, the revered Harvard professor who has penned numerous best sellers about the spiritual and moral lives of children, among them the Pulitzer-winning Children of Crisis. Coles invited Jarecki for a visit, and for six hours the director sat with the professor in his study and explained to him the story of Arnold Friedman, wife Elaine and sons David, Seth and Jesse Friedman of Great Neck, New York, who, in 1987 and '88, used videotape and audiocassettes to document the horrific destruction of their family. In November '87, Arnold, a beloved Great Neck schoolteacher, and his youngest son Jesse, then 18, were accused of one of the most heinous crimes fathomable, serial child molestation. Jarecki explained to Coles how his movie about a children's entertainer had morphed into something tragic and terrifying, how he worried his film would rip open old wounds and destroy David Friedman's thriving business, how the weight of this newfound responsibility to the family and the elusive "truth" had become almost crushing. To which Coles replied, after six hours, "Yikes," Jarecki recalls now.

The Friedmans, captured before the kill: Andrew Jarecki's documentary about the dissolution of a real family is a heartbreaking masterpiece.
The Friedmans, captured before the kill: Andrew Jarecki's documentary about the dissolution of a real family is a heartbreaking masterpiece.

"I encouraged him to seek the truth--not exactly an original idea," Coles says with a slight laugh from his home, in which you will not find an Internet connection or an answering machine. "After what I heard, I told Andrew I did not think those children were going to be hurt by anything he would be doing. I said, 'You're dealing with a troubled family, and interestingly a troubled family that's hurting but also one that wanted to document that for its own purposes...It's a public story, and I think what you would do is put it together with sensitivity and thoughtfulness and coherence and an urge to understand.'"

Which is precisely what Jarecki did.

The filmmaker left his meeting with Coles feeling confident in his decision to pursue this movie in which the only thing to be believed are the copious photos and home movies taken by a family that wanted to capture its history, perhaps in order to forget it. (As much as the film is an investigation into the arrests and prosecutions--and, some would say, persecutions--of Arnold and Jesse Friedman, it's also about the tricky, beguiling nature of memory.) The filmmaker would act as private investigator, family therapist and father confessor to a family with nothing left to lose--save for David, perhaps, who was initially terrified to discover Jarecki's movie changed focus and threatened to sink a prosperous business.

Jarecki interviewed police and prosecutors and the judge who presided over the case, the surviving family members (save middle brother Seth, who refused participation) and some of the boys who had taken Arnold's computer class, where the rapes were said to have taken place. Jarecki then assembled his mystery using moving and still images of the family in good times (frolicking on the beach, shooting Super-8 backyard productions) and horrible (trading insults and recriminations over Passover seder, watching Jesse pack for prison during his final night of freedom).

"I just felt called by it in some strange way," says the director, in Dallas last week to attend a Q&A after a screening of Capturing the Friedmans. Such audience-participation sessions have become ritual for Jarecki, who had been in the city a week earlier and may return again. Jarecki comes from money, created MovieFone in 1988 and sold it to America Online for more than $350 million in stock, which affords him a rather nice lifestyle. He lives in Rome with his wife and kids but will spend much of the summer touring the country with the film as it rolls out till at least August.

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