Family Portrait

Andrew Jarecki captured the Friedmans, perhaps to free them

The movie, he will often say, has become his obsession. It took him three years to make Capturing the Friedmans, which had an original running time of more than five hours, and will likely take as long for him to work it out of his system. The never-ending tour, he will say, provides catharsis, if not exactly closure.

"I'm not a very superstitious person, but you do feel like, when you start to learn the story, there's a certain sense that everyone is choosing you to tell it, because this story could have been told for 15 years but never was told," he continues. "It wasn't until I visited David's brother [Jesse] in jail that I discovered the interesting thing about family secrets is that not everybody in the family wants them to be a secret. Suddenly you find out that while David's agenda might be to keep it a secret, it turns out that Jesse wants nothing more than to tell the story."

Jesse Friedman, now free from prison but under permanent surveillance having been classified as the worst kind of sex offender, insisted Jarecki make Capturing the Friedmans. If David was beyond skeptical, Jesse saw Jarecki as his last chance--the Errol Morris to his Randall Dale Adams, as it were. (Morris' documentary The Thin Blue Linesprung from prison Adams, who had been wrongly convicted of killing a Dallas police officer. Jesse hopes for a new hearing, as well.) Jesse wanted the filmmaker to have access to all of the family's photos and videos, much of which contradicts allegations, made in the film and the public record, of prosecutors and cops who branded Arnold and Jesse as violent pederasts and collectors of kiddie porn.

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.

Yes, Arnold did possess such material and would later admit to sexually abusing his brother when they were children, as well as two other boys long ago. But there was never any physical evidence linking Arnold and Jesse to the crimes of which they had been accused in 1988--and, as the film points out, it's also likely the accusations of the boys had been false memories suggested by cops and planted by therapists under hypnosis.

Jarecki achieves the nearly impossible by sympathizing with the Friedmans but never judging them or telling us what to think or how to feel. He cares for these people, so much so he called Elaine Friedman on Mother's Day. But he never demands that we love them. Or even like them. He never tells us Jesse is innocent but suggests only he may not be guilty, which is why his film is a true masterpiece: We must do the hardest work of all, because we must make up our own minds.

"It comes back to the word love," says Al Maysles, who made such legendary documentaries as Gimme Shelterand Salesmen. Maysles helped Jarecki shoot the first day of the aborted clown documentary, but had no involvement after that. "If you empathize, then you accept that person flaws and all, and you feel it necessary to represent some of those flaws--some, maybe not all. There are many flaws one can represent in a loving fashion so that you can tell the truth and it's not hurtful and it may even be helpful. That gives you a lot of leeway. Unfortunately so many people like Michael Moore abuse that privilege and try to use people for some kind of prejudgment purpose, to serve an agenda. That's what I deplore."

No one who sees the movie leaves thinking, Whatever. It divides audiences who believe Arnold and Jesse victims of hysteria and those who think them guilty--or, at the very least, creepy. It is the very definition of a talker: Says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which is distributing the film, "If you're at a cocktail party this summer and haven't seen Capturing the Friedmans, consider yourself dead in the water. People can't stop talking about it. The first time I saw it, I watched it with my jaw dropped."

Bowles picked up the film shortly after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it was awarded the documentary grand prize. Magnolia began opening the film June 1, and at the Angelika Film Center in New York, it broke a box-office record for a documentary previously owned by last year's Bowling for Columbine. Though it's only playing in a handful of major markets--and, of course, Great Neck--the film has made nearly $500,000. And already it has garnered significant media coverage--The New York Timeshas made it a nearly daily fixture in its Arts & Leisure section--with more to follow as the movie travels across the country like a whisper that builds into a deafening shout. And Jarecki will be there with it, touring and talking and, most of all, listening to people debate his movie about a family that turned the camera on itself at a time when most people would close their eyes and hope to disappear.

"You definitely feel like you become part of their family," Jarecki says. "When I first finished it, I showed the film to Albert Maysles, and when we got to the end he said two things to me. The first thing he said was, 'You did right by this family,' and that meant a lot to me, and the second thing he said was, 'You realize that they're going to be in your life forever,' and I said, 'Yeah, I know. I accept that.' And I'm kinda quiet about that, and he said, 'Well, it's a good thing.'"

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