In the 1980s our culture of victimization was forming. Trauma became fashionable again--after a century--as an explanation for psychological misery. PTSD joined our ever more acronymous language. Rap groups, stress claims, and sensational reports of sexual abuse multiplied. Hypnosis and provocative psychotherapies--wherein a patient's "recovery" of traumatic memories was met with lavish praise from a therapist or group--were among the methods used to evoke recollections of remote childhood abuse. The national mood was bordering on hysteria about these revelations when, in 1987, Arnold Friedman, a popular high school teacher, and his youngest son, Jesse, then 18, were arrested on charges of sexually abusing 8- to 11-year-old boys during computer classes they taught in their basement, in prim, respectable Great Neck, N.Y. The documentary film "Capturing the Friedmans" is a retrospective effort by Andrew Jarecki to cobble together a coherent story of what Arnold and Jesse Friedman did or didn't do, and of the long-lasting consequences of that dark time for the Friedman family.
Jarecki started out to make a documentary about clowns in New York City. This led him soon enough to "Silly Billy," aka David Friedman, considered the No. 1 birthday party clown in the city. They talked a lot. Friedman shared hours of old 8-mm home movies of himself as a child with his family, film shot by his father, who was quite a ham. The three Friedman boys also loved to show off on camera. Jarecki also interviewed their mother, Elaine, at length. Both she and David spoke of a blandly conventional family life, but there were hints that this might not be the whole story. Suspicious, Jarecki began to snoop around, eventually coming across the story of Arnold and Jesse's molestation cases years earlier. Jarecki told David what he knew and said he wanted to make a different film, about the Friedmans' family tragedy. David reluctantly agreed but later warmed to the chance of telling the family's story from their (his) point of view. David then shared with Jarecki many hours of audio- and videotapes of the family made by him and Jesse at the time of the arrests, police investigation, and ultimate confessions of wrongdoing made by his father and brother.
In an interview on National Public Radio, Jarecki has described how he wavered initially when faced with this newly disclosed, often shocking material. He was concerned about the ethics of making the reconceptualized film. Would it be right to use videos of private family conversations in a commercial movie? How might such a film affect the future prospects of family members--the Friedmans and families of boys had who acknowledged sexual abuse? Jarecki sought advice from Robert Coles, the esteemed Harvard child psychiatrist and moralist, who has written extensively on the plight of disadvantaged children. After spending hours discussing the issues, Jarecki says that Coles advised him to move ahead. Jarecki and his editor, Richard Hankin, proceeded to weave a riveting, scrupulously nonjudgmental documentary, effectively mixing material from the Friedman tapes with interviews of others about the molestation cases, including Elaine, Jesse, and David (middle son Seth refused to participate); Frances Galasso, who led the police investigation from 1987 to 1988 and two other detectives who worked on the case; Abbey Boklan, the presiding judge; lawyers on both sides; a few of the 10-15 boys alleged to have been sexually molested, and the father of one; and Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist who had covered other child molestation cases. Everyone has their say here; and there is virtually no editorializing or manipulation by the filmmakers.
This much is clear: Arnold Friedman was a pedophile. He kept hidden in his home pornographic literature featuring sex with youngsters. He received and even sent such literature through the mails, which was the beginning of his undoing, as postal inspectors caught up with him. …