"Capturing the Friedmans", Andrew Jarecki's documentary on the collapse of an American family, is an incredibly difficult film to even begin to assess. The cerebral and emotional effect it leaves is undeniable; this is certainly a film that reverberates long after one views it. Incontestable, also, is that this is also a film that leaves one with many more questions than answers. But viewing the film gave me some pause; I think that many of the issues "Capturing the Friedmans" raises were not ones the director intended.
The film follows the Friedmans, a comfortable suburban family living in Long Island, New York. The father, Arnold Friedman, is a successful teacher with a wife (Elaine) and three children: David, Seth, and Jesse. The entire family is shocked when allegations of child molestation and rape are brought upon Arnold and Jesse. In what became a scandalously publicized court case, several of Mr. Friedman's students accused him and Jesse of sexual abuse that supposedly occurred during a computer class that they taught. The film examines the case from several angles, offering different opinions and views as to what really happened (there is no one cohesive truth throughout the entire film) as well as bearing witness to the Friedman's dysfunctional home life.
The first question I immediately asked when "Capturing the Friedmans" finished was: should this film have even been made? The documentary initially started as a project by Jarecki to simply talk about clowns, and since David Friedman was the most popular birthday clown in New York, an interview seemed natural. Jarecki soon found out about the child molestation case and changed the topic of his documentary. But what end, if any, is reached? Is this art, investigative reporting, or just Jarecki's idea of a good subject find?
Another factor that sends red flags shooting up is some of the material found for the film. The Friedmans had an obsession with filming every aspect of their daily life (or "Capturing" it, lending the film its double-entendre title). Included in their shooting is footage of the family at their breaking point; intimate family moments that should have been private are presented as exhibit A. The fact that these films were shot in the first place is strange enough, but seeing them in what has become a fairly popular film feels dangerously close to mass voyeurism.
But at the same time, it is impossible to believe that the Friedmans would put so much time into their interviews and offer their private tapes for the film and then feel cheated by Jarecki. To be able to handle the emotionally naked nature of "Capturing the Friedmans", one has to assume that the Friedmans were able to go through some process of healing when approaching the film; that it was somehow therapeutic to finally be able to let out what they have not been able to tell. Otherwise, it's hard to imagine why all but one of the living Friedmans (other than Seth, who declined) allowed themselves to be interviewed.
Those things considered, it is admirable how panoramic the film's view of the situation is. Of course there is no way to encompass every single school of thought involved in the case short of creating a (minimum) ten-hour film. However, Jarecki considers so much as to leave a viewer reeling. The effect of the film is incredibly powerful, not exploiting the horror of child rape or the family's descent but taking into consideration the entire legal system and just how deep an effect a serious crime (or merely an accusation) can have on a community.
While Jarecki takes the devastation felt by many of the film's subjects and imparts it completely on the viewer, "Capturing the Friedmans" is able to retain a sense of objectivity. But the complexities of its subject cannot be solved in one simple thought or chat, so it is critical that the film remains in one's mind. And it does just that. The film is strangely haunting in a way that it is nearly impossible to forget, even if it will take one back initially. So I think, although the small amount of controversy surrounding it is certainly understandable, the whirlwind of discussion that "Capturing the Friedmans" has the ability to create could be overwhelmingly positive for any open-minded viewer.