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.
Had the Friedmans not been such a technology-driven, forward-thinking family -
computers, home videos - how would your documentary have changed? Would it have
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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
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.
So was Arnoldís crime in being caught with a piece of mail; a plain,
brown-wrapped piece of porn?
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.
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?
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.
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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