movie film review | chris tookey

Capturing the Friedmans

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  Capturing the Friedmans Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
8.19 /10
Arnold Friedman (pictured right), David Friedman, Elaine Friedman
Full Cast >

Directed by: Andrew Jarecki
Written by:

Released: 2003
Genre: CRIME
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 107

First-time director Andrew Jarecki set out to make a documentary about Silly Billy, the number one children’s birthday clown in New York City. But he’s ended up making one of the darkest and most upsetting films of all time.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Silly Billy (real name David Friedman) is a living showbiz cliche: he’s the ultimate example of a clown wearing a smile that masks a seething maelstrom of pain. He is one of the most obviously disturbed characters ever to appear on celluloid, as – surrounded by magic tricks and a comedy rubber chicken - he rails against the police and his own mother, whom he blames irrationally for the crimes that his father committed.

For David is the oldest son of Arnold Friedman, a respected, popular high school science teacher and pillar of his suburban community in Great Neck, Long Island, until 1987 – when Arnold was discovered in possession of paedophile magazines. Worse was to follow: he was found guilty of using a computer class he ran in his own house, to abuse and sodomise boys between 9 and 11 years old. Arnold pled guilty and committed suicide in prison.

And that’s not all. David the children’s clown is also the elder brother of Jesse Friedman, youngest of Arnold’s three sons, who was found guilty of assisting in the rape of these boys. Faced with more than 200 criminal accusations ranging from sodomy to child endangerment, he too pled guilty, and received a prison sentence of 13 years.

The cliched, psychobabble response to David’s anger would be that he is “in denial”, that he can’t come to terms with the truth. And to some extent that’s right. He still finds it impossible to associate the loving father he knew with the cunning paedophile presented in court. Small wonder, then, that David clings on for comfort to his father’s admission that he did indeed interfere with two small boys – but not in his own house.

That defence may not mitigate Arnold’s guilt very much to an outsider; but with regard to Jesse’s guilt, it is crucial. Of course there remains the possibility that Arnold lied about never interfering with children in his own home in order to protect Jesse; but director Andrew Jarecki makes a very strong case for the alleged misconducts with the computer class never taking place at all, or becoming wildly exaggerated.

No medical or physical evidence of abuse was ever produced; and the police investigation methods were highly questionable for the way they led and browbeat child witnesses, some of whom clearly invented stories – as one prosecution witness confesses on camera - “to get them off my back”.

Another supposed victim "recalled" the molestation only after being placed under hypnosis (a means of therapy during which, as we now know, suggestions can be placed in a subject's mind to induce a false memory). And within the Great Neck community such hysteria spread about Arnold Friedman’s paedophilia that parents actually started indulging in one-upmanship about the number of times their children had been abused.

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that both the accused were forced into making plea bargains of “guilty” because of evidence from a small minority of children involved in the computer classes, that was contradictory, confused and in all probability invented to please their interrogators.

Among the most incredible aspects of the accusations is that children who had allegedly been abused over several months took a break and then came back for more, and that none of the parents – most of them intelligent professionals – ever noticed anything wrong with their allegedly sodomised and severely beaten children until after Arnold had been found in possession of child pornography.

Perhaps the most devastating revelation within this movie is the fallibility of human memory. Arnold freely confesses to having sodomised his own brother Howard when Arnold was 13 and Howard was 8, but Howard – though now in a happy, longterm homosexual relationship - can remember nothing about it.

Frances Galasso, the chief detective who led the police effort and is now retired, says at one point that child pornography was openly on display throughout the Friedmans’ house – clearly a false memory, since Arnold’s wife Elaine was patently unaware of his tastes, and everyone else’s testimony suggests that Arnold hid his pornography behind a piano in his study.

One of the weirdest aspects of Capturing the Friedmans is that the family gave Jarecki free access to their home movies. They make creepy but utterly compulsive viewing. Not only do they capture the Friedmans when they were, to all appearances, happy and normal.

Astonishingly, David carries on filming even after Arnold and Jesse have been indicted. We can witness the family falling apart, in searing sequences of sullen silences, angry outbursts and gallows humour, as the Friedman males attempt to see the ironic side of their predicament and their mother Elaine (not blessed with a sense of humour, but who can blame her?) looks on appalled.

The film doesn’t offer easy answers, but it does offer some important insights. One is that child abusers are people too. Like the father in Todd Solondz’s fictional film Happiness, Arnold Friedman was a loving father to his boys and, initially at least, a fond if emotionally distant husband to Elaine. Arnold did some monstrous things, but he wasn’t a monster at all times. After he has been indicted, he wanders through his oldest son’s home movies, looking numb, ashamed and desperately unhappy. And 15 years on from his crimes, we know that there are many thousands, perhaps millions, of men like him.

Another is that the gathering of evidence in such highly-charged cases is fraught with danger. It may be that Jesse was guilty of some of the crimes for which he was sentenced; but the film makes a plausible case for thinking that he wasn’t. He comes across as a genuinely tragic figure, with the sins of his father – and the hatred of the community - visited upon him.

For the victims of child abuse are not only the children who have been raped. When Arnold gave in to temptation, he deeply wounded his wife and three sons. The middle one, Seth, who’s moved west, married and had a daughter, allowed use of his image in the home movies but wouldn’t be interviewed, believing it better to cut himself off entirely from the past – and you can see his point.

Everyone professionally involved in that most emotive area of criminality, child abuse, should see this film – and so should every parent. This is a documentary that leaves a few questions of guilt or innocence hanging in the air, but it will open your eyes not only to the darkest, ugliest aspects of human nature, but also to the extraordinary selectiveness of memory.

This is not merely a unique documentary, it is a great film, and one which will never be bettered in its area. Watch it, and I guarantee that it will move you deeply, and then have you talking and thinking for days.

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