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August 18, 2003

Capturing "Capturing the Friedmans"

About a week ago, I went to see Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about a family from Great Neck, New York (out on Long Island), and a troubling and sordid incident that rent them apart.

The story is a fascinating one, and the movie is endlessly compelling. On filmmaking terms, it's not particularly interesting - talking heads interspliced with archival footage. But the film's subject matter enthralls, disgusts, disturbs, and captivates like nothing I've seen for a while. And, well, it makes you think. A lot.

I fear my memory has gone a little foggy, since it's been so long since I've seen it, but I want to write about my reaction. This entails lots of spoilers, so I've placed these thoughts behind the "Continue reading..." link.

If you haven't seen it, I encourage you to do so.

The film has what has become to known as that "Rashomon-like" quality. Different people, talking about the same thing, and all seem to have different understandings of what occurred. And you realized that it's deeper than different "understandings" -- these people deeply believe in what they remember, and yet many of these people directly disagree with one another, and the viewer is left scratching their head... "What *did* happen?"

There are only two things that I came away with feeling certain about.

1. The father, Arnold, had a problem -- he was aroused by pictures of sex with young boys.

2. The incidents that Arnold and his son, Jesse, were accused of perpetrating (sodomy and beatings of boys attending a computer class) never happened.

Now, Arnold and Jesse went to jail for these crimes, a gross injustice that causes anger. Who is worth directing anger at?

Arnold. He clearly had a problem, and refused to deal with it until it was too late.

The police. The saw a man had child pornography, and then saw that he also taught a computer class, and then engaged in faulty math that led to the dogged persecution of an innocent man. The interviews with the police officers are chilling -- they're the only one's who clearly misremember facts (the woman claiming that there was child pornography in plain sight throughout the house), and they essentially admit they used coercive investigation methods on the supposed child victims.

Who do you feel sorry for?

Jesse. Jesus Christ. A 19 year old boy swept up in this thing that's far bigger than him. Who realizes he's left no choice but to confess to a crime he didn't commit, because the option, a jury trial, would have likely lead to an even more heinous punishment.

Elaine. The mom. She's not painted in a very nice light, but it's clear that she did the best she could given the circumstances around her, and while her decisions weren't always wise, they were heartfelt.

Other Stuff That Interested Me:
The disagreement between Jesse and Peter Panaro, his lawyer. This was the one time in the film when two people spoke directly at odds with one another about what happened. Jesse says things were one way. Peter says it was the other. And neither has a lot to gain from lying about the past, so it seems like this is simply what these two remember.

The judge. She's a stereotypical no-nonsense tough-on-crime judge, and would be easy to demonize, but considering what she was saw, what she heard, what she was given, she made the only choice she could. It was interesting to think about being in her shoes, presented with this situation, a necessarily filtered and skewed view of what happened, and thinking, "Yeah, I'd probably have done the same thing."

The obsessive documenting. The reason this film works is because the Friedmans, first Arnold, and then David (the oldest son) were borderline obsessive about capturing and saving family history. The material that the filmmaker had to work with is astonishing -- you've never seen real people interact with each other in such a brutally honest and distressing way.

David. Whoa. Denial. Big big big denial.

Howard's (Arnold's brother) homosexuality. For the first 90% of the film, we see Howard simply as a talking head, providing some perspective on his brother that the children and wife could not offer. At the end, we learn that Howard is gay. I wondered how the filmmaker decided to handle this. Given that this film is about pedophilia, and that Arnold claims to have had sex with his brother when they were boys, it was clear that acknowledging Howard's homosexuality would be tricky. The couldn't simply ignore it -- that would be dishonest in a movie that is so frank. They could have revealed it early on, but that might have colored people's perception throughout the movie. I think the filmmaker likely made the best choice, saving it until the end, but it ends up feeling abrupt and a little suspicious -- still probably the least disconcerting way to do this.

Frances Galasso's coffee mug. The woman who headed up the investigation for the police is interviewed years later in her dining room. The filmmaker makes sure you see GEORGE W BUSH on her coffee mug.

I'd love to read your thoughts, if you've seen the flick.

Posted by peterme at August 18, 2003 11:24 AM

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I wrote about this movie in my web log and someone left a comment. My conclusion: All in all, it is difficult to understand who is telling the truth. The film definitely invited me to empathize with the Friedmans, regardless of guilt or not, and since I have a normal healthy repulsion to pedophilia, the degree to which the film was successful is remarkable.

Someone actually left a comment on how I was dooped by the film and that they were obviously guilty...who knows?


Posted by: Eric at August 23, 2003 11:00 AM

if it's a matter of guilt or not, then the friedmans are without question! but on a personal level, i think it goes alot deeper then everyone thinks...

Posted by: vinnie at October 13, 2003 06:50 PM

sounds like a good movie

Posted by: Anonymous at October 16, 2003 07:06 AM

saw the movie last night. they are innocent!

Posted by: maggie at October 28, 2003 05:06 PM

saw the movie last night. they are innocent!

Posted by: maggie at October 28, 2003 05:06 PM

They were obviously guilty. The entire family is living in denial. The middle son refused to participate in the film and I think that he probably did so because he couldn't stomach David's obvious desire to portray them as innocent. The comment you made about the difference between Jesse and his attorney is incorrect. Jesse has something to gain by changing his story. He wants to appear innocent, but his attorney knows better. If you listened to David's last comment, he said in essence that what the film uncovered was unexpected (at least to him). It revealed the fact of their guilt. I do think that the claims of abuse in the computer classes was mass-hysteria at work, but some of the kids did experience abuse. They were likely selected very very carefully by the abusers---i.e. whether the parents would become involved is very crucial to the "loving" abuser. Bottom line, I would not want to associate with this family in any way. Likely all three of the boys were sexually abused by the father and thus the reason for the strong denial by David....They all need counseling, but I think they need to come clean first.

Posted by: barb at November 11, 2003 12:18 PM

I agree with your points 1. and 2. I disagee with your exculpation of the judge. She skewered hew own view of the indictments. She knew of all the available evidence, pro and con, and chose to suppress anything favorable to the Friedmans.

The McMartin accusations occurred just before these surfaced. Even though the entire media coverage was anti-McMartin, it was obvious to any reasonable observer that the charges were absolutely and totally ridiculous on their very face. The hundreds of charges of wild and physical sexual abuse in the Friedman computer classes were just as patently ridiculous. No rational person can give them a spec of credibility. As a former prosecutor of sex abuse crimes she should have recused herself from this case. Whatever else this film exposes, it is a clear case of manufactured evidence followed by police, prosecutorial and judicial malfeasance.

Posted by: BJMe at January 7, 2004 10:01 AM

And here is yet another documented case of prosecutorial misconduct during the 1980s New American Witchhunt


Posted by: BJMe at January 19, 2004 08:40 AM

Just a comment on your remark that neither Jesse Friedman nor his lawyer have obvious reasons to lie about their opposite versions of the facts surrounding Jesse's guilty plea. In fact, both have good reasons to lie. Jesse's obvious possible motive is that he wants us to believe he is innocent, so has to come up with some explanation why he pleaded guilty (because, with a bunch of little kids as accusers and an admitted pedophile father, denials were never going to be believed anyway, so the only way to minimize his sentence was to confess, claim his father had abused him, weep and say he was sorry for the pain he had caused). The attorney's possible reason to lie is that he likely suggested this line of defense to his client, notwithstanding he could be disbarred for recommending that an innocent client plead guilty -- he therefore had to insist that the idea of a guilty plea came from the client, and that his client admitted his guilt to him before entering the plea.

It makes sorting out the truth even more impossible.

Posted by: Dallis Radamaker at January 30, 2004 06:04 AM

Hi... Just saw this movie tonight, Feb.13th, 2004, maybe a little

late to enter this discussion.(?) Maybe it should also be known this is the first discussion I've come across concerning this movie and felt compelled to say something. Well, as I am sure everyone here knows, this movie is nearly, if not impossible not to be daunted by deeper than per usual.
After watching the film and near everything in the special features disc, it remains very difficult to relay the 'truth'; it's difficult to keep your finger pointed at anyone herein long enough to get it straight before you've got it fixed at the other. Many things forced me to think about many other things, some of which I find interesting and ofcourse some obvious and they are as follows:
There is no true justice in this world. Sadly enough not in the nation of all possibilities, neither. It's been increasingly obvious over many, many civil rights cases brought forward over the last several decades (to which I probably shouldn't even start to begin to
name!) that the judicial system we uphold is a blanket we feel certain reliances and safeties from, with many faulty back roads and allies...and ofcourse, more and more of these 'alternate routes' become increasingly apparent as cases like these come to our
awareness. These people; any of whom wear an emblem in support of the laws of this nation are just people as we... trained and educated, ofcourse, but people none the less. With inclinations derived from morals instilled from parents (decade born/generation therein)... with fears and ignorances we all have towards things we don't understand. Science has paved many new paths for many, perhaps applicable sources of knowledge for learning about people whose brain
chemistry is different than the so-called 'norm' (ex.-see chemical ANAGEN, a lack of adequate amounts of this chemical assosiated with homosexuality and gender dysphoria, etc., etc. ,unknown reasons.)I'd never point fingers at any denomination of religious or political standings, but the way this nation runs on a pseudo basis of "fair is fair is fair is US" is an absolute joke as of now. Claiming many righteous things, yet you're still hard pressed to find a pure exercising of true civil equality and [real]acceptance. Had Arnold Friedman encountered A group of officers and detectives who, as unbiasedly as possible, acting out of the first governing force of any suppossed justice, acceptance, he might have met a different fate. He came off to me as a man roubled with his own issues and atypical sexiuality who dealt with not only his own recycled personal shame, but the shame of having spawned and raised a son who, if guilty, traveled the same path of sexual shame and discorse; if innocent a rather big chunk (some might say the rest) of his life stolen from him. When we get down to the very basics of situations like this, aside from looking which people or person are/is to blame, it seems fate would have a cruel joke on us, as I am sure Arnold and anyone else who admittedly suffers from any psychosexual/ any mental ailiment would agree with and probably change it in a heart beat if they could and not live a life of ncontrolable, and unlawful inclinations. And, uh, what with ofcourse,allegations against MichaelJackson... also now Paul Ruebens, busted for a huge vintage collection of child pornography... ('....ccccc'mon iiin, an pull yah-self up a chair...!' I personally grew UP with Pee wee and his awesome playhouse!)doesn't it make you think a little about who that *really* is on the cover of US WEEKLY? Which pop music idol you really might be adoring? ........Or better/best yet: Which police officer is rolling around outside, right now, "protecting" *you* as you sleep?

As Andrew Jarecki stated on the charlie Rose Show:
Jarecki-"..I think this[movie] makes you look at things with a different perspective..."
Rose- "... you mean, things are not as they seem...?"

Hm. Glad someone else is catching on.

(mind you, I don't believe in proof-reading. :P)

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