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Family Affair: Arnold Friedman, wife Elaine and sons Jesse (left), David (middle) and Seth (right), looked like a happy family until the unimaginable happened.

Shame

'Capturing the Friedmans' brilliantly chronicles a carnival of crime that may not have happened

By Richard von Busack

EVERYONE WHO sees the compelling new film Capturing the Friedmans will extract a different meaning from it. In that sense alone, Andrew Jarecki's documentary is a work of art. First-time director Jarecki tells a whopper of a story, aided by the cooperation of the Friedman family members, who were video nuts and loved to talk and act out in front of their home cameras. In this flabbergasting documentary, Jarecki contrasts the fall of the Friedmans with our own peculiar national obsession about the purity of our children.

On Thanksgiving 1987, on Piccadilly Road in the plush New York suburb of Great Neck, the police found and confiscated some boy porn in the possession of teacher Arnold Friedman, a former nightclub musician and the married father of three. The evidence consisted of magazines with titles like Chicken Pickens; the police, disguised as postal authorities, had delivered Friedman a few issues of this smut to buffer their case against him. That's the verifiable part of the story; after that, things get a little hazy. Friedman had been holding popular computer classes at his house. Once the news of the porn came out, children who had attended his classes told the police of violent sodomistic orgies. Arnold and his son Jesse were charged as rapists.

Son Seth didn't participate in the film, but Jarecki interrogates both Jesse and David, the oldest son, as well as Arnold's wife, Elaine, who seems the hardest to decipher. (It's like watching Hamlet: what was in it for the mother is the part we can't figure out.) Jarecki also weaves in Jesse's contradictory testimony; he may have pleaded guilty in hopes of a reduced sentence. David shares the video diaries he made during this ordeal. (Oddly, David didn't lose his sense of humor; today he works as a birthday party clown in New York.)

When all was lost, Arnold came clean about his pedophilia, telling his lawyer about having interfered with two boys many years before the Great Neck crimes. But were the two Friedmans guilty of this wave of molestations? It's impossible to tell. One of Arnold's students describes nude sadistic rituals; another ex-student says nothing happened. Journalist Debbie Nathan reminds us of other spectacular cases of molestation tried, just like this one, on nothing more than children's testimony. Remember the McMartin school in L.A.? Nathan notes of the Friedmans, "The monolithic feeling of innocence ... didn't exist in this family." That simple lack may have been enough to undo them.

There was a lot of smoke in the Friedman case. Perhaps all of it issued from a little fire of guilt smoldering inside Arnold. Capturing the Friedmans has been compared to Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb, another superb document of a purportedly bizarre family. By coincidence, Charles Crumb's self-destruction was partially due to his own pedophiliac longings. We call this particular bent "unthinkable." Obviously, quite a lot of people think about it. The only conclusive fact in Jarecki's suburban horror story is this: we need a more rational response to those such as Arnold Friedman than to demonize and destroy them.


Capturing the Friedmans (Unrated; 107 min.), a documentary by Andrew Jarecki, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and Century 16 in Mountain View.


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From the June 12-18, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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