"You can see that this wasn't exactly Fred MacMurray and My Three Sons." -- Elaine Friedman,
As unfolds, one thing becomes painfully apparent: The more you know, the less you know, and the less you want to know.
Documentaries often challenge the accepted notion that movie-going is all about voyeurism, playing on the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes the truth transcends the strange and heads straight to creepy. ratchets up this uneasiness several notches, mainly because of the previous two notions; as first-time director Andrew Jarecki craftily sculpts his narrative, he sets up the viewer to believe there is a mystery to be solved, but ultimately reveals his story to be more about the destruction of that most misunderstood entity: the American suburban family. By the end, you don't know whether to sift through the evidence one more time, or take a long shower. Early on, a distraught David Friedman plops himself down on his bed in front of a camera and seethes, "If you're not me, you really shouldn't be watching this"; by the end, you finally understand his point.
The film is so revealing thanks in part to the incredible luck blessed upon Jarecki when he sought out Jesse Friedman -- the youngest son in the family -- who had been working as one of the most popular party clowns in New York City. After their meeting, Friedman told Jarecki about hours and hours of videotape he'd shot of their family, much of which also chronicled the trials and tribulations they endured when his brother Jesse and their father, Arnold, were accused of molesting several elementary schoolchildren during off-campus computer lessons conducted in the basement of the Friedman home in Great Neck, N.Y.
What Jarecki lacks in sophisticated filmmaking technique -- too often relying on time-lapse cinematography to insinuate the passage of time -- he more than makes up for in editing and narrative precision. Imagine having access to a family's life on film, and cobbling together a cohesive structure that balances a crime story with a family's self-destruction. That's what makes the film's title so perfect; Jarecki's challenge is to capture the Friedmans with his own camera while complementing it with the Friedmans' camera. In this regard, Jarecki -- whose previous claim to fame was as the co-creator of the Internet service MovieFone -- comes off as a seasoned pro, and the results are gut-wrenching.
Like so many other families, the Friedmans are at first glance a typical, successful middle-class family; Arnold is a popular and honored high school science teacher and his smiling wife, Elaine, is a housewife raising their three active sons, David, Seth and Jesse. The male Friedmans -- their four-fifths majority rule in the household cannot be stressed enough -- are obsessed with themselves. They seem like an untapped vaudeville show, constantly performing for themselves and in front of a home-movie camera in all its 16-millimeter glory -- with its fuzzed colors and off-kilter rhythms. They josh, they cajole, they clown, they perform improvised skits, they grab each other for a dance around the room. And they all love it. All, that is, except perhaps Elaine, who always looks like she's the honorary member of the boys' club. It is foreshadowing writ large.
And then in 1987, the walls came down -- or were they crumbling before, but none of that got caught on film? Arnold finds himself at the center of an investigation by the U.S. Postal Service for ordering child pornography through the mail. The local cops get wind of this, and next thing he knows, Arnold Friedman and oldest son Jesse find themselves accused of sexual molestation while teaching computer classes to elementary schoolchildren at their home.
Then it gets tricky. Evidence recedes just as quickly as it mounts; for every moment you suspect their innocence, more revelations suggest their guilt. Less ambiguous is the destruction of the family under the pressure of the investigation as secrets are revealed, allegiances affirmed and accusations hurled. What on film was once an ongoing summer vacation becomes a nightmare. Despite all the notions of victimization, the ultimate victim appears to be Elaine, who not only finds herself trapped in a lie of a marriage but also labeled a scapegoat by her sons. (Only the middle son, Seth, refused to be interviewed for this film.)
provides layers that rarely are seen in traditional documentaries. That you are left questioning your own right to discovery just adds to another mystery entirely: the mystery of why we love to watch.
- Smile for the camera: Jesse, Seth, David and Elaine Friedman in happier times in Andrew Jarecki's devastating documentary, Capturing the Friedmans