Capturing the Friedmans review by The Grim Ringler

It has been said that reality television began many, many years ago when PBS took cameras into the lives of a family made a day-by-day documentary about the life of that family. As it turned out, it also became the first videography of a family collapsing under the weight of its own misery. But I think it could be argued that reality television and that voyeuristic lust began with the advent of home video technology. When we were able to buy a personal filmmaking device and could take it home and make home movies, that’s where it all began. And sure, this technology has spawned an ocean of today’s filmmakers (even I made movies with my friends when I was a teenager), but after seeing this film, I have to wonder how many people also caught on film the slow death of what had once been a family. Capturing everything in aching detail.

Capturing the Friedman’s is a very grim documentary film, which tells the tale of the Friedman family of Nassau County, New York. Using a great deal of footage shot by the family itself, much of this footage shot by the father at first and then one of the three sons, it captures the slow decay and destruction of a family that must deal with the unthinkable – allegations of child molestation which come at first against the father, and then the middle son. Beginning at first as just a bittersweet homage to a family that fell apart, showing clips the father filmed of birthdays, of dinners, of skits the boys put on, each shot in the very infancy of home video, but as the clips get newer and newer, entering into the eighties and the advent of videocassettes, the story takes a very unexpected dark turn. The father, Arnie, is caught in a child pornography sting in the mid-eighties when he is receives and then sends a magazine depicting sex acts with young boys. On a search of the family house several more magazines are found as well, and the police believe this to be everything. On a whim, one of the officers also takes into evidence a list of students that Arnie had been teaching a computer class to in the family basement. When the police investigate this list they come up with several stories from the students that Arnie and his son Jesse, then a teenager, had molested and brutalized many of the children he had been teaching in the family home and both Arnie and his son are taken into custody. What we then are shown are bits of archived television news footage, interviews with a supposed victim (shown now laying across a couch and giving us the first seeds of suspicion about the case against Arnie and his son), several people who insist nothing happened in that basement, the people who arrested the men, and most importantly, the family itself. It’s a harrowing tale showing a family ripped apart. When Arnie and his son are on trial the son David, the eldest of the three, begins filming the familial deterioration, the boys taking their father’s side and insisting that he is innocent while the mother, now faced with the idea that the man she was with for so many years is, if nothing else, a pedophile, cannot say the same with any certainty. And it is her fear at what her husband may be which seems to tear the family apart, though it’s obvious during the personal interviews that more was going on in that house for all those years. The most macabre thing in the film may well be two sequences, the first which shows the night before Arnie is set to go to prison and he is ‘enjoying’ one last night at home, and the second is when Jesse, also pleading guilty to the charges against him (for fear that he would never get a fair trial, his father pleading guilty in the foolish hope that it’d spare his son from going down with him), is about to enter his guilty plea. What we see then is a family in denial. Laughing and mugging for the cameras as they had for all those years, the joy now gone from their actions and a despairing act of ‘all is well’ being played out. The final video shot by and for the family is of Jesse dancing and putting on a skit as he and his brothers await his trial and his sentencing, the grim nature of this scene eluding no one in the courthouse we soon learn from the interviews. And while the heart of the film lies with the home movies that were made, more of the truth about the case and about the family itself comes out in the interviews. A mother/wife who never seemed to know her husband and who seems to have lead her husband and son astray in pushing them to plead guilty to charges they insisted were baseless. Arnie’s brother (who Arnie had told his wife and an independent investigator he had had a sexual relationship with as a child) who insists his brother is innocent. A son, David, who blames his mother for pulling the family apart, too wrapped up in his own fictitious memory of his father that he cannot even admit that his father deserved to be in prison, whether he was guilty of the charges or not (we learn other information that damns him to this end). And the son that paid for all of it – Jesse. This is both a ghost story and a horror film, showing what happens when the darkest of desires and lusts begin first to devour their master, and then everything else it can, from family to community and on.

This is a very hard film to watch, not because it is either graphic or sensationalistic but because you never leave with a sense of what the truth really is and whether the justice was fully served. And watching the death of a family is not something you should ever want to see. To see how much David hates his mother, and the denial he has about his father is heartbreaking. As is the shame and anger that Elaine, the mother holds in her still, as if she feels she might have stopped horrors that may not have happened. And that’s the hell of it, you never know quite what happened. To hear the facts in the case it is hard to say that Arnie and his son are guilty of what they are charged with. It is obvious from what you learn that Arnie was a sick man and had done things which warranted his prison sentence, whether he wanted to believe that or not, but it is hard for me to say, especially when faced with the interviews of one alleged victim and the parent of one that insists nothing happened as well as other students who insist the same, that anything happened in that family basement. But it’s also hard to dismiss it all when you have a man that was as troubled and sick as Arnie obviously was.

As a portrait of the American Family as a wounded and dying beast, it doesn’t get much grimmer than this. And two things I really like and admire about the film is that the director only interjects a couple of times - never making the film about himself (a thing which helps the film and family tell its own story), and never once do you get an easy answer. The director managed, somehow to keep themselves focused not on the guilt or innocence of Arnie and his son but on the devastation their convictions caused the family. The film does falter though in that you never really get to know the people before you know their dark pasts. You only get to sort of know them at the end of the film, which I am sure was a editorial decision made to reveal all towards the end, but it’s hard to care about these people when all you see is their anger, resentment, and the horror of what they lived through.

A very good, if dark, documentary and a very well made film. It’s one of those that is almost hard to recommend in that what is revealed about Arnie (and perhaps the things in his past that helped to create him and if you follow that, what those things DIDN’T do to make his brother the same as he) is very hard to know how to process. He was a monster waiting to be born, and all we can do is wonder what horrors he did do. It’s a great movie but again, I think some of the editorial notions hurt the film, as well as the fact that towards the middle of the film it feels as if the director is not sure whether he wants to focus the film on the family or the trial or both. If you are into documentaries though, this is a must see. If you are just a casual fan of documentaries this may be one you want to sit out. No matter what though, you will walk away from the film with a lot of uncomfortable questions floating around your brain.


8 out of 10 Jackasses
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