Monday, August 5, 2013

FI: Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans
US, 2003
Directed by Andrew Jarecki

One of the best things about documentary films is how reality makes its presence felt, how directorial intentions and the story the director ultimately documents can change significantly more over the course of production than is possible with feature films. I think about how Werner Herzog narrowed the scope of Into the Abyss, or the way the tragic events of Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary turn it from a missive about a lost friend into a quest for justice. In Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, what was originally going to be a film about clown/magician David Kaye (né Friedman) and other popular NYC birthday entertainers, ended up focusing solely on the skeletons in David's family's closet.

In the 1980s, David's father Arnold (a retired teacher) and youngest brother Jesse were arrested in a child pornography and molestation sting. Jarecki uses the family's extensive home video footage from before, during, and after the arrest and trial, along with present-day interviews with the family, investigators, victims, and others, to document the toll these events had on the family. In the process, he discovers something about the impact of mass hysteria on a close-knit community, and the ways in which the stories we choose to believe can alter our perception of reality and our relationships with one another.

Though he tries to hide it, Jarecki clearly has his own opinions about Jesse Friedman's guilt or innocence (Arnold, who died in prior to the film, gets slightly less sympathetic treatment). But even so, Jarecki's choices and those of editor Richard Hankin do a great job demonstrating the fogginess of truth, making excellent use of the available footage for maximum emotional power. And, by and large, Capturing the Friedmans is less concerned with guilt than it is with the family's complicated dynamics and the web of deceit and self-deception the crime exposes. There's an intimacy, a sense of reality rarely seen in films, here, that underscores the Friedmans' pain without mitigating the horrors that Arnold and Jesse may have perpetrated. The film stands as a document of darkness, both the darkness that can hide within a "normal" family, and the darkness that can emerge from small-town America when faced with a perceived threat. Quite a philosophical place to wind up, considering the film's birthday entertainment origins, but I doubt we'd still be talking about this movie if it were about a clown.

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