Capturing the Friedmans,
107 mins, opening in cinemas nationwide on 1 April 2004
What are the rights of a pedophile?
This is one of the many questions posed by the documentary film
Capturing the Friedmans, the debut feature of Andrew Jarecki. The
film tells the story of the Friedman family of Great Neck, Long Island,
New York State. The Friedmans appear to be a typical upper middle
class Jewish family. The patriarch, Arnold, was a highly
respected, award-winning, high school teacher of maths and music.
He had a wife, Elaine, and three sons who idolised him. They
loved to make home movies about their holidays and other family fun.
Their lives were shattered one day in 1987 when police raided the
Friedman home, based on evidence obtained over a three-year
investigation by federal postal authorities. In 1984 Arnold
had ordered a child pornography magazine from the
Netherlands. A postal inspector then pretended to be a pedophile
and wrote letters to Arnold, trying to convince him to share
pornography with him. Eventually Arnold did.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1987 police raided the Friedman home and found
child pornography magazines hidden in Arnold’s basement study.
Then the federal police told the Nassau county police that Arnold also
gave computer lessons to children in his home. The enrolment list
was produced and the police started interviewing the children. A
few weeks later both Arnold, and his youngest son Jesse, who had helped
out with the computer classes, were arrested on charges of child
Director Jarecki stumbled on this story when he interviewed elder son
David Friedman, who works as “Silly Billy”, a children’s party
clown. Jarecki was actually making a film about Silly Billy, but
when he realised the connection with the Friedman family, he changed
the focus of the film.
The Friedmans had hours of Super 8 film and video tape that they were
prepared to share. David Friedman recorded not only the good times, but
also the bad times. He filmed clowning around, family singalongs, and
arguments about guilt, innocence, loyalty and legal defence
tactics. There are intimate moments and shouting matches.
There is utter emotional meltdown. It’s all on film.
For lawyers, this film raises many questions. If a man is an
admitted pedophile, is he an automatic suspect for child
molesting? What sort of evidence is required to launch an
investigation? What if there is no physical evidence at
all? Is an enrolment list enough to go on? What are the
ethics involved in interviewing young children in these
circumstances? How suggestible are they? Can their memories
be trusted? Would a pedophile automatically abuse his own
son? And so on. The film offers no easy answers, and it
certainly doesn’t take a position on Arnold and Jesse’s guilt or
In addition to the home movies, there are more recent interviews with
the police officers involved in the case. The police do not
inspire much confidence. Neither do the lawyers. But at
times the family seems like its own worst enemy.
The filmmakers go back a couple of generations to investigate some
statements made by Arnold indicating why he believed he became a
pedophile. It seems the death of his young sister had effects
which are still being felt today. There’s some haunting footage
of this little girl dancing. The ramifications of her death for
successive generations bring to mind classical Greek tragedy.
The filmmakers jump back and forth in time, and the family resemblance
makes it a little difficult to keep straight who is whom. And as
in any documentary film, the filmmakers selected the footage that made
it into the final cut of the film, which means they had to exclude some
potentially relevant material. But despite all that, this is a
fascinating and provocative story, and well-told. You’ll
spend hours, as I did, debating with your friends where the truth lies
and who the victims are. Capturing the Friedmans is essential viewing
for anyone with an interest in crime, evidence, due process or justice.