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With: Elaine Friedman, David Friedman, Jesse Friedman, John McDermott, Det. Frances Galasso, Anthony Sgeugloi
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Andrew Jarecki
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 107
Date: 01/17/2003

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Crossing the Line

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the grand scheme of things, human beings are still a very primitive race of people. Within the past 50 years -- a bare blip of history -- African-Americans were forced to drink from different fountains, the word "cancer" was not spoken allowed, and people were beaten to death because of their sexual preferences. We still have a long way to go. Pedophilia is a big problem in this country; it's perhaps the worst crime imaginable. And the public currently reacts to it with hysteria instead of understanding or compassion. Therefore, it's only natural to look at Arnold Friedman with disgust and horror.

In the late 1980s, Friedman and his youngest son Jesse pled guilty to pedophilia-related charges -- including rape. Arnold died in prison, while Jesse was released after 13 years. The new documentary Capturing the Friedmans suggests that nothing actually happened and that no physical proof exists other than the testimony of the children. Certainly Capturing the Friedmans smacks of reality TV. By now, the scandal had been forgotten and the Friedman family had returned to normal life. Oldest son David has become the number one birthday clown in Manhattan and mother/wife Elaine has remarried. But the lure of being on camera was too great. The Friedmans even supplied tons of home movie and video footage to director Andrew Jarecki to use as he pleased -- including candid family arguments and private footage of David telling us that we shouldn't be watching.

Still, Jarecki comes up with some interesting information. On the one hand, Arnold admits to being a pedophile. He subscribes to kiddie porn magazines and keeps a stash behind the piano. He even admitted to a dalliance or two in his past. But as a piano and computer teacher who weekly invited children into his home over a period of several years, Jarecki seems to think he and Jesse were innocent. On the other hand, experts tell us, no blood, bruising, or soiled or torn clothes were ever found, and no child complained to his or her parents until after the cops began investigating. Jarecki interviews one "victim" who remembers being raped, but the film implies that the memory could have been planted by hypnosis.

Jarecki also cannily uses the home movie footage to humanize the two convicted Friedmans, showing them as a loving family unit, and -- surprisingly -- showing the boys' preference for their father over their mother. The Friedmans obviously laughed a lot, despite their obvious dysfunctional tendencies. Still, it's not clear to what degree Capturing the Friedmans succeeds. It performs a valuable service in getting us to think about pedophiles as people with serious problems rather than as monsters. But it also revels in the crude exploitation techniques of reality TV, and it may be too in love with its subject matter to explore it clearly. It's a truly bizarre film, joining this year's many unusual documentaries from Stone Reader to Stevie. And in point of fact, I never want to think about the Friedman family again, but I can't deny that Capturing the Friedmans is a hugely powerful documentary, and one that deserves its due.

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