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.

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 Line sprung 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.

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 Shelter and 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 Times has 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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