‘Capturing the Friedmans’: art, truth and marketing

Tuesday, 20 April 2004 Screen version with links

is now doing the rounds of cinemas in Britain. A curious fact about the Oscar-nominated ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ is that it was made more by accident than design. Director Andrew Jarecki, the multimillionaire co-founder of the US firm Moviefone (a cinema listing and ticket service eventually bought up by AOL), originally set out to make a film about the best-known of New York’s children’s clowns, ‘Silly Billy’. It eventually transpired, however, that Silly Billy - or David Friedman, to give him his real name, was part of a story far more tragic than Jarecki had ever envisaged. In 1986 David had been caught up, along with his parents and his two younger brothers, in one of the most horrific sexual abuse cases which had ever come before the US courts. After his father, Arnold, a former pianist and bandleader who became a much loved high-school teacher, had been found to possess a collection of child pornography, the local police force were persuaded to entertain much graver suspicions about his conduct. They soon formed a theory that Arnold and his youngest son Jesse had used a computer-class they held in the family home as the cover for organised paedophile abuse of the young boys who attended it. Officers began to interview these children and, under their prompting, some children began to produce stories of buggery and violent sexual abuse.

Although no child had reported anything amiss at the time, and although no parent had ever suspected anything, Arnold and Jesse soon found themselves facing hundreds of allegations of horrific sexual abuse collected through the repeated interviewing of fourteen different children.

What made the whole drama irresistible to Jarecki is that, as the Friedman family began to implode under the stress of the accusations, with the three boys turning on their mother for refusing to give their father her unqualified support, David Friedman had continued the family tradition of making home movies and had recorded the unfolding drama on video.

These videos, intercut with film which had been shot years previously by Arnold, became a precious resource for Jarecki. Not only does he use them to great effect but he also somehow manoeuvred David, Jesse and their mother Elaine into taking part in the film.

Jarecki’s technique is to present the story principally as a disturbing family drama, He multiplies different, often mutually contradictory points of view (including those of the police officers, prosecutors and the judge in the case) seemingly without editorial adjudication.

The result is a gripping film in which narrative twists are artfully made, and crucial characters introduced at moments which heighten the dramatic tension. Those familiar with the sexual abuse hysteria which had engulfed America at this point in history, and with the McMartin case, will be left in little doubt that the crimes of which Arnold and his son Jesse were eventually convicted never took place and that both the prosecutors and the police involved in the case had become caught up in a collective delusion. Although the Friedman story is different in some respects from the Shieldfield nursery case in Newcastle, which is documented elsewhere on this site, there are many disturbing parallels.

As a work of dramatic art, then, the film is a triumph. What renders it yet more powerful is that it is not a simple tale of a wholly innocent man being wrongly accused. There are no saints in this film and no heroes. Arnold Friedman, fondly adored by his three sons though he may have been, really did have a collection of child pornography which he hid behind the piano. He admitted to being sexually attracted to young boys and admitted that on two occasions in the past, unconnected with the horrific and extreme charges he faced, he had succumbed to the impulses he was trying to resist and sexually seduced two young boys. The difficulty that his wife Elaine had in facing up to this, and the even greater resistance to it from his sons, only adds to the tragic resonance and the moral complexity of the entire saga. 

Yet although the film would be a triumph if it were judged purely as a work of art, the fact remains that it is not art. The events which the story recounts are real ones and the problem with the film is the manner in which it seems to select some of the facts for dramatic or artistic effect rather than in an attempt to arrive at the truth of what happened.

Those who are not familiar with the satanic panics and the sexual abuse ‘hysteria’ which reigned in America at the relevant time may well find the artful uncertainties and the pretended even-handedness of this film confusing. The fact that both Arnold and his son Jesse were eventually persuaded to plead guilty to allegations which were undoubtedly false, but whose falsity is not clearly established by the film itself, will only heighten this confusion. Debbie Nathan, whose book Satan’s Silence is far and away the best account of the particular episode in American history to which the Friedman case belongs, has expressed reservations herself. Given that she took part in the film, both as a consultant and as a talking head, this is highly significant. As she wrote in the last year:

. . . Jarecki, the multimillionaire founder of Moviefone, . . . has shrewd business sense. While the film was in production, Jarecki told the Friedman family he thought the two were innocent of the charges. Polling viewers at Sundance in January, he was struck by how they were split over Arnold and Jesse’s guilt. Since then, he’s crafted a marketing strategy based on ambiguity, and during Q&As and interviews, he has studiously avoided taking a stand. Teaser ads pitch the film as a Long Island Rashomon: “Who do you believe?” For Jarecki and his PR people, the question is rhetorical.

It would seem that, having discovered that his artful presentation of the facts had actually engendered confusion in his audience to a degree he had not anticipated, Jarecki opportunistically decided to trade on this confusion rather than attempt to set the record straight. That the task of establishing the historical truth in a case as grave as this should take second place to a clever marketing strategy is more disturbing than Nathan allows herself to acknowledge.

She is, I believe, absolutely right when she goes on to argue that ‘the film gives the Friedmans —and the culture — a little bit of space to think about who pedophiles really are, what they really do, and how we should deal with them as human beings instead of monsters.’ What she fails to point out, however, is that, at the very same time that it creates this space, the film withholds crucial facts which might help to fill it. It is Nathan herself who recounts a conversation she had with Arnold Friedman:

[He] told me in a quavering, stop-start voice over a prison pay phone: ‘Since childhood I’ve been tortured by this problem. You have to remember, those magazines used to be perfectly legal. I was trying so hard to control my urges. To not touch a child. My therapist told me to go to Times Square and buy porn. To sublimate with. He called it a prescription.’

If it is indeed the case, as seems all too plausible, that Arnold had become addicted to child pornography because this was the ‘medicine’ his ‘doctor’ had prescribed for his illness, then his wretched predicament becomes all the more tragic and all the more human. The film itself, however, gives no hint of this.

The most serious stricture which should be made about the film, then, is the one which has been well put by the lawyer Harvey Silverglate in the :

In works of fiction, such as Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon, pure art can govern filmmaking decisions. There is no moral problem with setting aside the concept of objective reality and allowing many subjective experiences to co-exist in multiple unresolved narratives. In nonfiction, however, dealing with real people and real events creates a moral obligation not just to create good art, but also to expose, in as responsible a manner as possible, the underlying truth . . .

Investigative writers like Debbie Nathan, a paid consultant to Jarecki who appears in Friedmans, journalists and editorialists like the Wall Street Journal’s crusader Dorothy Rabinowitz, and serious scientists like Maggie Bruck, Elizabeth Loftus, and Nicholas Spanos have cast the cold eye of rationality upon these modern-day witch-hunts and exposed the ugly methods used to convict innocent citizens of horrible crimes that obviously never took place.

Jarecki had the opportunity to do the same in his film about the Friedmans. Instead, he adopted a peculiar approach that failed to follow obvious lines of questioning and left out relevant details. He then marketed the film with an opportunistic, if not outright cynical, strategy that avoided expressing a conclusion about the Friedmans’ guilt or innocence.

To offer this criticism, however, is not to suggest that the film should never have been made or that it is not, in certain respects, extraordinarily powerful. Now that the film has drawn attention to the case and offered at least some insight into the unsoundness of the entire prosecution, there is at least a chance that Jesse Friedman, the surviving victim of a cruel miscarriage of justice, will eventually succeed in having his conviction overturned. Without the film there would have been next to no chance of this happening.

In the end, like the characters who feature in his flawed masterpiece, the director himself distorts the reality he purports to reveal and his version of events cannot ultimately be trusted any more than theirs. This may make his film seem more artistic. But it stops it from being what all good documentaries should at least aspire to be: truthful.

Some Friedmans links

One of the most useful resources for understanding this case is Jesse Friedman’s . For an interview with Andrew Jarecki, click . In his interesting , David Edelstein suggests that the film is subtly slanted towards one version of events: ‘I found the case against the prosecution more devastating for being undersold. There is a lot in the movie to suggest that the recovered memories were questionable. There is also some less-than-subtle editorializing, such as an interview with one of the accusers that makes him look and sound like a male hustler. (His head is in shadow to conceal his identity, but he’s splayed out provocatively on a sofa.) That’s in sharp contrast to the students and parents who speak up for Arnold Friedman and who report the prosecutors’ blunt tactics to make them and their boys “remember” the abuse.’

However the slanting of the story, if that’s what it is, is far too subtle for some other critics. In his second article about the film, a , Harvey Silverglate writes: ‘Containing hours of previously unreleased footage and archival material, the DVD makes it clear that Jarecki decided to maintain a studied ambiguity. He had compelling evidence that the Friedmans had been railroaded by a criminal-justice system in the grips of hysteria. This evidence presumably was omitted for dramatic effect.’ The last part of this claim may be true. But it is not clear, as Silverglate suggests, that ‘Jarecki decided to maintain a studied ambiguity’ when he made the film. One other possibility, which seems to be supported by Edelstein’s response, is that the director believed he could edit his film for artistic and dramatic effect, create the illusion of even-handedness and play postmodernist games with perspectives while still conveying the message that the crimes of which Arnold and Jesse had been convicted had never taken place. When the pollings he took at the Sundance film festival revealed that a good proportion of the film’s audience thought otherwise and felt that Jesse and Arnold were guilty, he seems to have decided to try to make the best of a misjudgment and fudge his own views retrospectively in order to bring them into accord with his audiences’ perception of the film.

If Edelstein is right when he suggests that the film is deliberately but subtly slanted in one particular direction, then the problem is that such subtlety is ill-suited to the material it is applied to. What Jarecki appears not to have understood when he was putting the film together is the extraordinary power of the kind of accusations he was dealing with and the tendency of people confronted with them to follow practically any route which offers a way of escaping from an otherwise overwhelming sense of horror. If, in making your film, you seem to give equal, or almost equal authority, to all points of view, including those of the deluded but rational-seeming judge and prosecutors, you effectively point your audience towards a false exit. Partly because this exit looks reassuringly official, you should not be surprised if a good proportion of your audience deferentially and anxiously disappears through it. Film audiences certainly do need drama and artistry. But, particularly with subject-matter like this, they also need at least a degree of authority and clarity on the part of the director. Truth is, sometimes at least, a one-sided business. If you try too hard to be even-handed, there is a very grave danger that you may actually succeed, and do so at truth’s expense.

Of course it may be that Jarecki has been so seduced by postmodernism that he has rejected the very possibility of establishing any objective truth. But if that is the case, and if Nathan’s version of events is accurate, then either Jarecki has changed his position entirely, or he was lying when he told the family, pre-production, that he thought Arnold and Jesse were innocent. Whichever way one looks at it, the film, for all its extraordinary power, remains seriously flawed and Jarecki does not emerge as the wisest or most trustworthy of directors. 

Added February 2006: See also Chris Mooney

Tuesday 20 April 2004                            

� Richard Webster, 2004



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