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  •  REVIEW: CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS



    Capturing the Friedmans

    Less than kind

    "Capturing the Friedmans" gives a harsh — perhaps gratuitous — inside view of the disintegration of a Long Island family through the family's own home movies.

    By JOSHUA TANZER
    Offoffoff.com

    What seems to be the point of "Capturing the Friedmans," a documentary look at a Long Island family being railroaded into prison over child-molestation charges, may not be the point at all. Perhaps, as most or all of the Friedmans seem to earnestly believe, father Arthur and son Jesse are innocent of the damning charges, but it's not clear either way. What really dominates the film is not the legal maneuverings around the case, as documented after the fact by filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, but the novelty of the home-movie document the Friedmans themselves made of their own family's ugly deterioration.

      
    CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS
    Directed by: Andrew Jarecki.
    Featuring: Arnold Friedman, Elaine Friedman, David Friedman, Seth Friedman, Jesse Friedman, Howard Friedman, John McDermott, Frances Galasso, Joseph Onorato, Judd Maltin, Abbey Boklan, Ron Georgalis, Scott Banks, Debbie Nathan, Jerry Bernstein.

    Related links: Official site
    The outline of the case is that Arnold Friedman, New York City schoolteacher and middle-aged father of three in affluent Great Neck, Long Island, was accused of molesting neighborhood boys in his basement where he gave computer classes in the 1980s. The film calls the evidence into question, some of it obtained through unreliable hypnosis and some through questioning by police who may have essentially planted their stories in the minds of the impressionable children. The stories may still be true, and the prosecutors still stand by their case, but they seem at least open to question. The film is not nearly as convincing as Errol Morris's "The Thin Blue Line," but it is full of thought-provoking uncertainty.

    And maybe defense lawyers could have cast enough doubt on that evidence to thwart the prosecution, but they never got that chance — for two reasons. First, as the Friedmans — like numerous plausibly not-guilty defendants before them — are quickly informed, the legal system has no intention of giving them a trial. Criminal justice grinds forward largely by cutting deals, not holding fair trials, and if you choose to go to trial you've probably doomed yourself already, whether guilty or not. Second, with the teenage Jesse included as a co-defendant, albeit with almost no concrete evidence against him, the more his father fought, the worse he would condemn his probably innocent son.

    Capturing the Friedmans  
    The legal outcome of this catch-22 is not remarkable. To anyone who has experienced or read about criminal justice, it will only confirm what should be obvious to everyone — that our country provides very rough justice in which the truth is incidental to the battle for power between the state and the usually overmatched little guys in the dock.

    What is remarkable about "Capturing the Friedmans" is how the Friedmans captured themselves on film. Natural showmen, the three Friedman males (with one son camera-shy) had had their own film cameras for years and loved to perform their ongoing family drama in front of them. So the extroverted trio and the dour mom preserved their own story over the years, right to the desperate end. And it's a grim picture.

    As Debbie Nathan — a writer who covered this case and others involving the possibility of planted memories — notes, many families pull together when one of them is charged with a crime, supporting one another and working on their defense together. "Other conflicts are submerged," she says. But the Friedman parents' bonds were shaky all their lives, and their chronicle is one of sniping, sobbing and shouting rather than cooperating. And this is what the filmmakers — that is, the family members themselves rather than the producers — have here that's unusual. They've given the world a portrait of their own deterioration through their own eyes.

    I was never sure that I needed to see what the film has to flaunt. "Capturing the Friedmans" is illuminating, in spots, about what happens to ordinary people once they're caught in a prosecutor's sights; but it also panders to a reality-TV audience for whom any personal agony is fit to be made public in the name of an evening's entertainment. Not convincingly redeemed by any ultimate meaning, the film remains essentially a car wreck by the side of the road that we may compulsively gawk at as we cruise by.

    JULY 15, 2003
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK



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