Capturing the Friedmans
Interview with Andrew Jarecki
Interview by Paula Nechak, 13 June 2003

Seattle International Film Festival 2003

Once upon a time, in an affluent suburb of Long Island, NY, called Great Neck, lived a family. The Friedmans were like all the other proud families; dad Arnold was an award-winning schoolteacher and musician. His wife, Elaine, was the embodiment of iconic housewife. They had three children: David, Seth and Jesse. What could be more idyllic?

On Thanksgiving, 1987, the police arrived. They searched the house and took Arnold, and later the youngest son, Jesse, away in handcuffs. Why?

Thatís the question that is explored in Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary of familial unrest and perhaps major horror that has swept the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals (winning the Grand Jury Prize).

David Lynch could not have made a more unsettling film about the cracks that lie beneath the surface of a perfect existence. Director Andrew Jarecki succeeds because he allows real life to speak for itself; no need to inflame or incite with a severed ear in a field or Dean Stockwell, slathered in lipstick, lip-syncing to a golden oldie.

The Friedmans surpassed anything any director of fiction could imagine. Arnold and Jesse were booked and indicted on over a hundred counts of pedophilia, all which supposedly transpired in the family basement. The parents of the boys had never noticed anything was amiss. The boys only complained after...well, never mind. True or false? The crimes are certainly potentially shocking, the evidence is even more shockingly suspect. Jarecki, nonetheless, follows the story - helped by the familyís own harrowing home movies - with the stealth of a tabloid dog, bent on sniffing out the truth (the director began his quest while making a movie about New York clowns and, after getting a whiff of the defensive anger and pain that hid within subject David Friedman, dug just a little deeper until he unearthed the Friedmanís secret), and finding that truth is somewhere in between what happened and everyoneís idea of truth.

No one may ever know. In a mystery that tore apart a family - the victimsí stories clash and collide like a ship lost in a storm and Arnold died in prison in 1995 - the established ideal of what justice is supposed to entail might just be forever challenged and compromised.

Paula Nechak: Had the Friedmans not been such a technology-driven, forward-thinking family - computers, home videos - how would your documentary have changed? Would it have ever existed?

Andrew Jarecki: It would have existed but...I mean, I was prepared to make the movie long before I found out about the [Friedman] home movies. The story was so interesting and the characters so engaging and I found the conflicting accounts to be so intriguing. It just would have had a different feeling to it and it wouldnít have been as good. The Friedmans are like us but only more so. Everybody does home movies but they really did home movies. Everyone has family secrets but somehow theirs are more gripping.

PN: Was it difficult to find backing and distribution once you switched gears from clown movie to a movie about shocking crimes? Also how did it change your working process? I donít know if you story boarded or drew on index cards but did you eventually have to shape the film in editing?

AJ: I think. I have a terrific editor and I brought him on when it was a clown movie. I made the film over a two-and-a-half-year timeframe. As I reached what I thought was the end of shooting the clown movie I said "letís get a really talented editor and start trying to assemble this." After I did it became clear at a point that the film was going to change completely so we sat down and took all the footage from what we called "Movie A" and put it in a box and began work on what we called "Movie B." There is still some Movie A footage - like the first interview with Elaine where she says about David, "I tried to make him into a doctor or a lawyer but he turned out to be a clown." Thatís still in the finished film.

PN: Do you think Arnoldís fate would have been different had he been born twenty years later when the world was more evolved and he would not have had to be in the closet about his feelings? This is touchy and I donít mean to sound dismissive or politically incorrect because I donít mean anything to do with the kids - you can guilt-trip them and frighten them into submission and thereís simply no excuse - but perhaps he might have then felt OK about who he was and perhaps achieved a healthy relationship with a man his own age?

AJ: I have thought about that. His brother, Howard, has thought about that. You see how tortured Arnold was by the secret life he had to lead. It was clear there was this middle-class construct around Arnold but actually he was a maverick in his way. If he was a few generations out of the class of his parents, had made some money, and if he were in one of the nicer houses in Great Neck then he could have gone on, had a life as an intellectual, an artist, a filmmaker or something else. At that time the biggest reach he probably could have made was to be a teacher and obviously he was a good one, he loved it, but I think he dreamed of a different life. He wanted to be a mambo musician. There were people who were openly gay at that time, there were pockets within the artistic community.

PN: What part did the affluence of the area, of Great Neck, play in Arnold, Jesse, and the entire familyís fate? Itís clearly a major character in its own right.

AJ: Yes. I had a sense when I was shooting that overhead footage of Great Neck that it was a bubbling, amoeba-like creature. I saw a biological metaphor for the whole thing. There was a pulsating amoeba of Great Neck filled with all these little affluent, healthy cells. There were arteries streaming to Manhattan, back and forth, Jewish people carrying money, things, food and items that needed to be used within the organism. Then at a certain point, alarm bells went off and determined there was a bad cell at 17 Piccadilly Road and the organism reacted to it. The red blood cells flowed in, Italian police officers, the judge, who kind of descended upon the family. There were news trucks in the yard and there was a process to eliminate this family. It was very conscious and I think it was people doing what they thought was right. Whatever Arnoldís crimes were, it wasnít good for the community and they needed to be eradicated. Their job, especially in a Jewish community, is to protect itself and maintain its property because itís a nomadic culture. Periodically it settles down and puts down roots and then historically it gets obliterated at some point. So it is essential to fortify and have guards around it. If you have a problem from within, thatís the worst of all. It leads to shame on the community, itís dangerous for the children; whatever Arnold was up to it wasnít going to lead to procreation or healthy Great Neck-ites. Itís kind of how the human race works; "thatís a problem that could interfere with our hegemony, get rid of that." I think it was done in a way that didnít take into account any of the subtleties because who cares? We used to say Arnoldís attitude was indignantly to say "I am being accused of the wrong felonies." The sad thing about this story is people connect Arnold and Jesse as if theyíre one item. From my standpoint, whatever you believe, itís important you see these people as individuals.

PN: So was Arnoldís crime in being caught with a piece of mail; a plain, brown-wrapped piece of porn?

AJ: Well, peopleís careers were made on this investigation. We had a screening in New York a few weeks ago where everyone - the police, the judge, their wives and all - showed up. To say the Q&A afterward was lively is an understatement. It was an altercation, it was fascinating, and it was reminiscent of the film. Everyone had their own perspective on it. But, among other things, the judge came up and hugged me. I got along well with her though I think she did some awful things. Her comment, "There was never a doubt in my mind as to their guilt," well, I donít think you can be a Supreme Court Judge in Nassau County and say that when thereís been no trial. She said to me later, "I just want you to know as an amateur artist that I think you made a beautiful film." Sheís an artist because sheís now retired and teaching ballroom dancing on cruise ships. She then said, "I think itís a work of fiction." Thereís a confidence in the verdict.

PN: I bounced all over the map feeling sure they were guilty and then certain they were innocent five minutes later while watching the film. Every print feature Iíve read on your documentary concurs: Premiere says "Iím still wondering what happened twenty years ago in a house in Great Neck," and The New York Times feature had a last line that stated, "If only it were that simple." As a culture we like things cut and dried. This ambiguity might shake people up. Is this the best response you could ever have hoped for?

AJ: Itís the kind of thing everyone tells you if they see an interim cut: "No, no, no, youíve got to take a view." Reality is, that is more comfortable. You can get to the end of the movie and you can put it in a little movie box. There are so many things we assume in our culture. When I started working on this I wanted to hear from anybody who had a perspective on the case. I even met with these two guys, former Assistant DAís who were investigators or something. I said, "Let me tell you the story of this family." Immediately they said, "Well, theyíre guilty." I asked "How do you know?" "They pled guilty," they said. So I asked them if people who plead guilty are always guilty and they told me "As cops it is incredibly difficult to get a guilty guy to say heís guilty so can you imagine how hard it is to get an innocent person to say that?" The intriguing thing to me was they wouldnít hear any alternative version to it. They were very invested in the fact that at the end of the criminal justice system thereís one nub of truth which is if you get a confession finally you found truth because nobody would confess if they didnít do it. They work around that just to get closure, a conviction and then they move on. I might have gotten to the end of the film and found out the story was exactly as reported in Newsday but I at least wanted to be open-minded all the way.

PN: You have children. Does the current climate politically and societally as well as seeing how easy it is to implicate a person on whatever charge, ever give you a feeling of vulnerability?

AJ: It definitely makes you think. There have already been White Supremacist web sites that have gone after the film saying, "Thatís all we need is a film exonerating these disgusting..." Well, thatís the kind of antagonism that comes up. By people who have never seen the film, by the way.

PN: Now that the familyís lives are about to change dramatically once again, what with the release of the film and the critical acclaim itís received so far, what responsibility do you feel toward them? Are they prepared for another onslaught of attention?

AJ: In a way. They understand itís coming and theyíve certainly had a lot of conversations about it. Theyíve spent time talking with people so they donít feel blind sided by questions and I think theyíre pretty open. Itís time for the story to be told and donít forget, they like performing, they like the limelight.

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