Capturing The Friedmans Review

The Friedmans are a middle-class family living in the fairly affluent Long Island suburb of New York, the father Arnold, a renowned computer scientist who teaches at the local school, is respected by students and colleagues alike. On the surface everything is idyllic, but one day a package sent by Arnold is intercepted and discovered to contain a child pornography magazine. The event brings to light a series of revelations and suspicions about Arnold’s past which splits the family, devastated by this and by subsequent events.

The revelations that the film gradually reveals are shocking. A hidden stash of child pornography magazines is found. Accusations are made that the father took advantage of his teaching post to molest his pupils and that he implicated his youngest son Jesse in his crimes. The breathtaking range of offences however appear to be tainted by police suggestion techniques while questioning the young children and parental hysteria. There are no physical signs of the systematic abuse that is supposed to have taken place and Arnie denies the charges, but he has his own shocking confession to make.

When hysteria is breaking out all around and a multitude of simply outrageous and unbelievable accusations are being levelled at the man, the viewer is swayed between revulsion for what is supposed to have happened and outrage at how the investigation is carried out. On one side you have the vehement protestations and denials of his eldest son David, the most fervent and outspoken defender of his father, the outraged disbelief of Arnold’s brother and the testimonies of his lawyers and experts in sex crimes – on the other side, you have testimonies from the original investigative police and testimonies from those who claim to have been abused. The truth, like most documentaries must lie somewhere in-between – and that is where Capturing The Friedmans has an unusual advantage.

What is so astonishing about Capturing The Friedmans as a documentary is the amount of first-hand documentation that is available. The family were used to recording home-movie footage of their daily lives and when the storm broke, they continued to film the effect the accusations had on their lives. Bitter rows take place as the family take sides behind their father and against their mother and all are documented in the film, right up to the day of the trial. This puts the viewer in a position to judge the behaviour of the father and the family as the accusations are put to them, and as the news and revelations break – not just many years later after the fact in more composed and controlled circumstances. Without a narrator to guide you along the way, the film places the viewer in a new and uncomfortable position. It doesn’t give you any easy answers, no ready victim and no clearly identifiable culprit. You try to examine the faces and the behaviour of the accused for any tell-tale signs of contradiction or evidence of perversion as if it can be seen in their eyes. You find yourself questioning testimonies and police investigative procedures. You choose who you think is most credible because unfortunately, as the film make horrifying clear, those who abuse children don’t look or behave any differently on the surface from other people. This is a film with many talking points and many uncomfortable realisations that, if the showing of the documentary in my household is anything to go by, will split opinions and spark off almost as lively as debate as any of the family fights on the screen.

The video quality is superb. Much of the footage is taken from home-video and Super-8, but even this looks remarkably clear and free from damage, since practically none of it has been seen since the day it was recorded. The transfer to DVD is faultless – anamorphic 1.78:1, clear, stable and free from artefacts of any kind.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo – perfectly appropriate for a documentary. I’m happy to see that it hasn’t been seen as necessary to include a DTS or 5.1 mix for this film. The excellent music score by Andrea Morricone is used well and well mixed. Voices are perfectly clear for most of the film. Some of the home video footage that is less clear contains fixed subtitles, but I personally could hear what was said perfectly clearly.

Hard of hearing subtitles are included for the feature, but not for the commentary or any of the extra features on the second disc.

The documentary film is perhaps the most ideally suited to making use of DVD extra feature material and Capturing The Friedmans admirably takes advantage of the format to provide a huge volume of astonishingly comprehensive and invaluable extra material on the second DVD. It is perhaps best not to go into too much detail here on what is contained, as it is better to see the film first and then investigate the extra features for further in-depth elaboration and documentation on many of the films points, in the manner of visual footnotes. The extra feature menus are superb, graphically categorising material as video footage, investigation files and family albums. I have never seen a DVD where the extra material was so compelling and genuinely enhancing to the film experience.

Disc 1 Extras
Director Commentary
Director Andrew Jarecki and Editor/Co-Producer Richard Hankin provide a fascinating commentary for the film. Since there is no narration during the film, it is interesting to get the filmmakers’ own reaction to footage, interviews and opinions. They also discuss editing choices and reasons for including or excluding footage.

Director Interview by Tom Dawson (29:49)
An extensive interview with the director, exclusive to this release, covers much the same ground as the commentary and other interviews on the second disc.

Trailer for the film.

Disc 2 Extras
The Discussion
Under this section we get some amazing footage of all interested and opposing parties at the various premieres of the film and the post-showing reaction during An Altercation at the New York Premiere (9:15), and The Judge speaks out at the Great Neck Premiere (6:16). Some Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (6:08) are also provided. Charlie Rose Interviews Director Andrew Jarecki (19:20) is an American television interview with some insightful questions.

Unseen Home Movies
This section contains some additional footage from lengthy home-video sessions that were unable to included in the final film, from the family’s last complete gathering at Passover Seder (2:19) where Grandma Speaks (0:29) to the emotional footage shot during Jesse’s Last Night (3:18).

The Case
There is some fascinating documentation here providing further insight into the charges and how they were investigated. The Investigation (8:17) on the gathering of evidence and how children were interviewed, Additional Suspects (7:12) provides information on other alleged accomplices, not mentioned in the final film. Great Neck Outraged (3:53) covers the backlash from the community and A Principal Witness For The Prosecution (3:32) contains further shocking evidence from the student who remembers most of what happened after hypnosis sessions.

The Family
Designed as a Family Photo Album, further footage is gathered here on Arnold (5:54), Elaine (7:12), Jesse (16:09) and David (20:12). The David section contains the original 20 minute short film documentary Jarecki was making (‘Just A Clown’) when he discovered David Friedman and decided to investigate his family story. An Audio Scrapbook in this section should contain some of the audio recordings that Jesse made, but I was only able to get each piece to play for a few seconds.

The Score (7:19)
This contains footage of the recording sessions in Rome and interview snippets with composer Andrea Morricone, son of Ennio.

DVD-ROM material
Extensive documentation on the DVD-ROM section includes letters, psychologists reports and an audio track of Arnold’s early band performances. Further photographs and information can be found on the official site for the film.

Capturing The Friedmans is an astonishing documentary. At once a Blue Velvet-style exposé of the vices hidden behind closed doors in seemingly respectable middle-class American families; a case study of sexual abuse and paedophilia; an examination of its effect on the perpetrators family, the victims and society; an investigation into the crime's mishandling and misunderstanding by the public, social services and police investigators; but more than anything it is a compelling film that forces the viewer to confront increasingly horrifying realisations about child abuse and the people who take part in it and the fact that it is often impossible to identify an abuser. The 2-disc DVD with invaluable additional material is a fabulous presentation of a powerful film that takes full advantage of the medium.

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