2003-07-11 / Columnists

MovieScope By Robert Snyder ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ – Father Knows Worst

MovieScope By Robert Snyder ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ – Father Knows Worst

MovieScope By Robert Snyder
‘Capturing the Friedmans’ – Father Knows Worst


Amidst a summer of superheroes, computer cartoons and comic soap operas comes a film that is as disturbing as it is fascinating.

A Grand Prize winner at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, "Capturing the Friedmans" is the flip side of "Father Knows Best"…or better, "My Three Sons." The documentary chronicles a controversial Long Island child abuse case in the 1980s. As one audience member said at a recent screening, it is "like a bad novel." That is, ‘bad" in the sense of ugly and upsetting.

Although early home movie footage indicates that the Friedmans of Great
Neck were once cute as the Cleavers, our final impression is of a family that makes the Osbornes look sane and sensible. Director Andrew Jarecki has mountains of video footage that eldest son David Friedman shot while the family was falling apart. Now the "Number One Clown in New York," David expresses extreme anger at his mother, Elaine, and an inordinately high degree of protectiveness for his father, Arnold, and brother Jesse, who both pled guilty to some 196 counts of child molestation and possession of child pornography.

The documentary shows that Arnold was a ham from the beginning, having once led a "Latino" dance band in the Catskills. He went on to become an award-winning teacher and computer expert who, with Elaine, produced a family of three sons (David, Seth and Jesse). During their early years, they all seemed to be living an ideal life in the upscale suburbs of Long Island.
   Then, a bomb was dropped in the form of a piece of child pornography from the Netherlands, which postal authorities seized as it was on route to the Friedman home. After the house was searched, piles of such porno was discovered behind Arnold’s basement piano. Testimonies started flooding in, linking Arnold and 18-year-old Jesse to acts of child molestation during the teacher/father’s at-home computer classes. Before long, the beloved dad and his boys are in handcuffs headed to a Nassau County jail.

Ever the evenhanded  filmmaker, Jarecki tries to balance the story with ample interviews from former students and Arnold-Jesse supporters who sing the suspects’ praises. Then, there are others (police officials and more former students), who offer evidence and impressions that Arnold was a raging sex pervert, to the point of sexually assaulting Jesse and his own brother, Howard (accusations that Jesse and Howard dispute).

Much of David’s love for his father stems from encouragement of show biz aspirations. In fact, David’s obsession with entertainment is a major reason for the existence of "Capturing the Friedmans." Why was he videotaping his family’s and his own most personal and painful moments? Why would he now want to dredge up such a horrible story, which most people have long forgotten? It’s understandable that Seth refused to participate in the documentary. At the end of the film, Arnold has died in prison and Jesse has been
released after 13 years behind bars. Jesse maintains his innocence (despite the guilty plea), David is convinced Dad is guiltless and Mom has remarried, still disgusted by her first husband.

"Capturing the Friedmans" lets the audience draw its own conclusions. Was the case merely a witch-hunt by police and press? Or were Arnold and Jesse real sex fiends feeding on young innocents in suburbia?

Go see "Capturing the Friedmans," but don’t expect to come home happy.

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