Capturing The Friedmans

An honest and courageous documentary, chronicling the disintegration of a middle-class suburban Jewish family.

By Ashish Ghadiali

It's difficult to know what to say about this film when watching it left me virtually speechless for hours. I had considered heroism in the field of documentary to be something like a cameraman dodging bullets in a war-zone, but in this chronicle of the disintegration of a middle-class suburban Jewish family, there is more honesty, more courage – a greater commitment to documenting the most secret and most vulnerable passages of human experience – than perhaps anything I have seen anywhere on screen.

The result is raw, sometimes overwhelming, often surprising, elusive to the end. This is barely entertainment. This is a trial – but a trial that teaches us to stop waiting for petty judgements and acknowledge when the truth cannot be known. This is a tragedy where we marvel at the pain that can be borne – how life goes on even amid shattering uncertainties.

The Friedmans, with the exception possibly of mother Elaine, loved home movies – so much so that even after father Arnold was arrested for possession of stacks of child pornography, in a case that led onto a string of charges against both Arnold and youngest son Jesse, for sexual abuse against more than thirty private computer and piano pupils – eldest son David began to document the disintegration of the family.

There is an extract from a video diary shot by David in 1988 that begins, 'if you're not me then you really shouldn't be watching this'. The thought is never far away as we are made party to years of the most intensely private family wrangling. And yet the Friedman family have delivered all of their gathered material up to first time feature director, Andrew Jarecki who, cutting this material together with interviews with all but one of the family members as well as lawyers, journalists, parents and police, has produced a rendition of the trial of Albert and Jesse Friedman which, while demonstrating the excessive lengths gone to by the prosecution, also demonstrates how, for as much as the Friedman family are revealing, there are secrets that they will not easily let go.

Not content to rely on the sheer power of his footage, Jarecki has constructed the film with the vision of an architect, pushing us to one side of the argument, persuading us with a particularly compelling piece of evidence, before neutralising his tack with the opposite line. Whichever way we're driven, it's always in a way that makes us feel the maximum emotion – whether horror, or even laughter – so that by the end, unable to decide what's true, what's not, we're left with little alternative than to overcome the sensationalism of the subject and feel some sympathy for everyone involved.
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