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Framing the Friedmans

“Capturing the Friedmans” is Andrew Jarecki’s documentary about a child sex abuse scandal that shook Long Island, New York in the late 1980s. Arnold Friedman and his youngest son Jesse were accused of hundreds of cases of assault and sexual abuse of minors. They pled guilty; Arnold committed suicide in prison, and Jesse served 13 years in Dannemora correctional facility. Unfortunately, the documentary sheds little light on these events and refuses to answer the questions whether real crimes were committed and the right people punished, or whether as seems just as likely, police, psychologists, lawyers and judges went badly astray in a miscarriage of justice.

It seems plain that Arnold Friedman received child pornography through the mail, and this is what kicked off an investigation into the computer classes he ran out of his home. His ex-wife Elaine says he confessed in therapy to molesting two boys who were not his students, at a different place and time. Arnold may have had sex as a child with his younger brother, but his younger brother doesn’t remember any of this. His son Jesse’s lawyer alleges that Arnold told him he was a pedophile. But Arnold wasn’t indicted for those sex crimes, as far as we can tell from Jarecki’s movie. Rather, Great Neck, Long Island police charged him with conducting a continual man-boy orgy in his house over a period of four years. None of his students complained, nor did their parents until after they’d been interviewed by police. No physical evidence was ever presented.

The documentary is troubling in its sources, in what it draws on and what it leaves out. The only accuser (beside police and prosecutors) the filmmakers were able to interview is unwilling to show his face on camera, although he is now an adult, as he retails stories of having retrieved his abuse memories under hypnosis. Other former students say they saw nothing and were pressured by police to affirm they’d been raped. There’s enormous tension between accounts of the crimes Arnold seems likely to have committed (and for which he was not tried) and the stories of coercion and false testimony about the impossible-seeming crimes for which he was imprisoned. You would expect the documentary to take off after this problem: “how is it that no one complained during four years of group rape?” But that question would be either too hard or too easy to try to answer.

Instead, Jarecki centers on the spectacle of pain. The Friedman family tore itself apart under unfathomable pressure, and as their father was about to be sentenced David, the eldest son, began recording the horror on his video camera. Dysfunctional doesn’t cover it: the sons pile on their mother in a blamefest. She’s faced with the agonizing choice of standing by a man who has lied to her for decades about his sexual predilections, or breaking up a vulnerable family. Either way, the family is doomed in the face what appears to be police and judicial railroading, but at least two of the sons decide it’s all her fault, not Dad’s. Then there are all kinds of unanswered questions about the brothers’ versions of what happened, and their motivations for participating in the film. Their versions of events change until we’re left with only miserable sympathy for Elaine Friedman and no respect for anyone except invisible Seth, the middle brother who refused to participate in the documentary project.

It’s a disservice in this day and age not to have the documentary filmmaker take a more definite point of view on what happened, however difficult the truth is to discover. Even though Jarecki has recruited Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist who wrote about the sex panic for the Village Voice, he doesn’t give her a final say about what she really thinks. Yet it seems what happened was this: a pedophile’s crimes (including, possibly, violations of his own child) went undetected and unprosecuted until his pornography was discovered. The porn was then treated as prima facie evidence that he was running a kiddie rape ring, and police ran amok proving this was so. Children may have been coerced into implicating innocent people, and at least one young man was placed under so much prosecutorial and defense lawyering pressure that he may have confessed to crimes he didn’t commit. All this unfolded under the watchful eye of a judge well-versed in sex crime prosecution.

Just how much Jarecki confuses things by his focus on the family is clear from the creepy web site he’s built to promote his movie (www.capturingthefriedmans.com). It takes the form of a family album with pages of snapshots devoted to each miserable member, albeit in supposedly happier days. But there are no pages for “experts on sex offenders,” “lawyers,” ” what we know and don’t know about pedophilia,” “investigative reporting,” or “other mass sex abuse allegations,” in other words, no room for anyone who might have a less weird, more grounded perspective on what was a societal as well as personal disaster. The contemporaneous McMartin pre-school case is barely mentioned.

Jarecki is so invested in commenting on the final undecidability of reality (and, it might be added, so indebted to David Friedman for his use of his extensive home movies) that the larger implications of this mess are never explored. This backhanded achievement can be measured on the comments pages of the web site. Viewer after viewer has signed in to say things like “what a great movie, but finally, I couldn’t figure out what really happened. I guess we’ll never know.” The implication is that in art, the truth doesn’t really matter. Maybe that would be a cute filmmaker’s trick if this were the only example of such a witch hunt, and if so many lives weren’t still being ruined.

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana.

 

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