The family secret

Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki reveals a household ripped apart in 'Capturing the Friedmans'

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Photos special to the Journal-World

Images taken from "Capturing the Friedmans" depict the Great Neck, N.Y., family during happier times, until father Arnold and youngest son Jesse were indicted in 1987 for allegedly molesting boys who had come to their suburban home for private computer classes.

"It was one of the strangest journeys, because I started out making a film about professional children's birthday party clowns," says filmmaker Andrew Jarecki. "As sometimes happens with a documentary, it just completely changed in the middle, because I discovered that one of my characters -- David Friedman -- had a secret story."

The skeleton in the cupboard was that in 1987, David's father, Arnold, was arrested in a federal sting for possessing child pornography. Within weeks the incident snowballed into Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, being indicted on nearly 200 counts for molesting young boys who had come to the Friedmans' house for computer classes.

"Capturing the Friedmans" documents a suburban family coming apart at the seams while the justice system feverishly hunts for the truth. The central mystery is to what extent, if any, these two men are guilty. In the movie, evidence to support or contradict their involvement is introduced from a variety of sources. Yet ambiguities linger.

"The most common question people ask me has to be, 'What do you think happened?'" Jarecki says. "And it's the one I probably least answer. Not to be coy, but I feel like the whole essence of the film is that it's hard to figure out what the truth is, and everybody's got their version of it. ... In the end you want to let the audience be the jury."

Sex, lies and videotape

Already Jarecki's impressive debut has earned the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. Most predict it will be nominated for an Oscar in January.

That's quite a departure for what was supposed to be a lighthearted look at clowns.

"I had been working on that movie for about five or six months before I switched over," says Jarecki in a recent phone interview from his home in New York. "I went back to David after I figured (his secret) out -- which I did on my own. I said, 'Look, I've figured it out, and I'm making this other movie. I want you to cooperate, and I want you to really think about it.'

"His attitude was, 'I understand you feel that subconsciously I want to make this other movie. But I can tell you my conscious mind knows that this is not good for the clown business.'"

Once David (who goes by the professional name Silly Billy) finally decided to collaborate on the project, he made a revelation to Jarecki that would fundamentally transform the film.

"I knew Arnold Friedman was an avid taker of home movies -- 8mm and Super 8 -- because David had given me a whole box of these films before I knew the other story," he recalls. "But then (David) said, 'There's another box that has 25 hours of home videos that I started taking when the police showed up.'"

While award-winning documentaries such as "The Thin Blue Line" have resorted to re-enacting pivotal moments onscreen, Jarecki didn't have to worry about that maneuver. In his possession was David's own camera-eye view of the Friedman clan splintering from the pressure of the ordeal. From the gradual emotional withdrawal of mother Elaine to the mounting panic of accused brother Jesse, the footage offers a level of insider intimacy that an "Investigative Reports"-style approach could never match.

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"More and more, I notice that if I go to a screening and see a group of people watching the movie, there's usually somebody who is somewhat dismissive of it," the filmmaker says. "They'll come up to me and say, 'Oh man, that was the most screwed up family I've ever seen.' Usually, if you wait around for 10 or 20 minutes that same person will be the one who comes back around and says, 'I know this is going to sound strange, but there's somebody in my family who reminded me of somebody in that family.'"

Father knows best

The dominant figure of the Friedman family is father Arnold. Portrayed as everything from an esteemed intellectual to a perverted nebbish, the man is no less of an enigma by the film's end.

"Here you have a guy who is a very good man in a lot of ways but did some very bad things," Jarecki says. "That's disturbing to the audience to some extent, because we like to see our good guys and bad guys clearly defined."

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So how guilty was he?

"I think the average viewer of the film might feel like it's splitting hairs to worry about whether Arnold did it or didn't, because he's admitted to sufficient transgressions. So does it matter that he did EXACTLY what they say he did? I sort of feel like it does matter a lot. As an example, you could believe that he was a practicing pedophile and had all kinds of activities with boys, but if you don't believe that he was a violent guy -- and don't believe that he was dumb enough to do that in a public setting -- then the whole case against Jesse falls apart."

Unfortunately, Arnold's sexual predilections dragged Jesse down with him. The then-18-year-old served 13 years in prison. While it's a matter of debate whether the father took liberties with his young students, the evidence pointing to Jesse's involvement remains far more suspect.

"What was disturbing to me was that the only person I could find that had any recollection of being abused by Jesse was somebody who didn't have any memory of that until he was hypnotized," Jarecki says of a witness who chose to remain anonymous. "I found him to be hard to believe because his recollections are so murky and confused and seemed to emerge after hypnosis. As for Arnold, we used to joke as we were editing the film that his policy was basically to say indignantly, 'I am being accused of the WRONG felonies.'"

Career opportunities

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If Jarecki's eventual subject matter went through several detours, so too did his career path toward filmmaking.

Although he studied theatrical direction at Princeton, Jarecki majored in English and eventually started his own business in 1989. That company became Moviefone, the ticket and showtimes service he would sell to America Online a decade later. The sale afforded him the financial opportunity to indulge in "Capturing the Friedmans."

"I don't have much to do with them now," he says of Moviefone. "I'm the guy who e-mails them if the showtimes are wrong at the Chelsea Cinema. They're polite enough to listen, but that's about it."

Even though Jarecki grew up in a suburban New York family of three brothers just like the Friedmans, he has a Midwestern connection that regularly brings him to Kansas.

"My wife Nancy is from Abilene," he says. "We actually showed the film a few weeks ago in Salina. It was really fun, and everybody was like, 'This film would play well in Lawrence.'"

While audiences from around the country have reacted positively to "Capturing the Friedmans," not everyone has embraced the moral ambiguities that give the picture its undeniable power. In fact, according to Jarecki, some people just don't get it.

He recalls, "Two people were leaving the Angelica -- which is sort of the main art house in New York -- and I was standing outside. One guy said to the other guy, 'Well, I was very disturbed by that film.' The other turned to him and said, 'Don't worry about it. It's a mockumentary.'

"In a world of Christopher Guest ('Best in Show') someone can see this film and think that it's so much stranger than fiction that it has to BE fiction."

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