Capturing the Friedmans

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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"Denial," said the wag, "is not a river in Egypt."

As Andrew Jarecki’s skillfully constructed documentary about the Friedman family proceeds, it is nothing short of startling to see how these ostensibly ordinary folks buried their heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge the realities of their lives until, for all the wrong reasons, reality imposed itself so forcibly that it could no longer be avoided.

Ironically, Jarecki started out making a film about party clowns, entertainers hired to amuse at children’s birthday celebrations. David Friedman, the eldest of three sons in the family, is a professional party clown. When police interrupted the Friedman family Thanksgiving dinner in 1984 with a warrant to search their home, a very different story emerged; when Jarecki learned about this history, he switched gears, filming the documentary even as some of its later events unfolded. He was aided significantly by the Friedman family predilection for taping home movies, not just at family occasions, but even in intimate moments of family conflict. Jarecki uses much of that remarkable footage in his film.

The warrant arose out of a sting by the police who had been informed by the postal authorities that they had intercepted a magazine containing child pornography which David’s father, Arnold, had purchased by mail from the Netherlands. ("Arnold likes pictures," his wife Elaine says to the camera, as if they were photographs of tulips or picturesque canals.)

Arnold Friedman was a popular teacher in the Great Neck, New York schools and ran computer classes for local students in the Friedman home. What began as a raid for child porn escalated into a witch hunt by overzealous police who questioned many students, often planting suggestions of what might have happened at their computer classes. Both Arnold and his youngest son Jesse were indicted for child molestation.

Jarecki’s deft organization of the factual material provides the momentum for a never-flagging exposition of the complexities of the Friedman case; he parcels out pieces of information over the course of the film which keep changing the complexion of what has come before. This was a time when there was widespread hysteria in the United States over child molestation, with a number of high profile court cases (the McMartin case, for example) on the front pages for months on end. Therapists claimed to have uncovered repressed memories which sometimes turned out to be fictions planted during hypnotherapy. In the Friedman case, even the police acknowledge that there was not a single piece of hard evidence against the alleged perpetrators. On the other hand, Arnold’s own voluntarily written personal history indicates that there was ample reason to consider the possibilities of misconduct.

The elusiveness of the truth about what did or did not happen in those computer classes is made evident; Jarecki lets his leanings show through, but he keeps his treatment even-handed. There’s no question, however, about the fallout of the case. The misery and the disintegration of the Friedman family is painfully documented in the film. The realities of the family relationships, particularly between Arnold and Elaine, and between Elaine and her sons, belie their own self-images and the projected image in the community of a happy middle class suburban family. And the denouement, complete with utterly conflicted stories between son Jessie and his own defense attorney, gives rise to bewildered wonderment over the justice system and its practitioners.

Arthur Lazere

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