Arnold Friedman was an award-winning schoolteacher, who taught music and
computer classes to local children. He was an Ivy League-educated chemical
engineer, a former jazz/samba musician, and an amateur photographer who
shot and filmed much of his family (which included wife Elaine and three sons,
Jesse, David, and Seth.) They lived on Picadilly Road in the
well-kept, well-groomed and affluent community of Great Neck,
In the mid-to-late 1980s, Arnold and son Jesse ran their computer
classes out of the family den, and dozens of local children partook of this
experience. Their idyllic existence ended abruptly during the Thanksgiving of
1987; their home was raided under the suspicion that
Arnold was in possession of child
pornography, and piles of the material were discovered by authorities. In
the ensuing investigation, authorities determined that Arnold and Jesse were
molesting the children in their care. The Friedmans were indicted of ninety-one
counts of sodomy and sexual abuse against several children, and pleaded Not
Guilty at their arraignment. Arnold Friedman eventually pleaded Guilty to over
forty counts of sodomy, sexual abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child,
and received a ten-to-thirty year sentence. Jesse Friedman, who was 18 at the
time of his indictment, pleaded Not Guilty and his case went to trial. He
eventually changed his plea to Guilty, and at the age of 19 received a
six-to-eighteen year sentence.
Winner of the 2003 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival,
Capturing the Friedmans lives up to its title in two ways. The
film is aptly named, as its strongest asset lies in its ability to take a
fiercely sincere look at the Friedman family. While the film does trace the path
of Arnold and Jesse's trials,
investigations, convictions, and sentencings, it is in its piercing gaze at
the working dynamics of the Friedman family that Capturing the
Friedmans emerges as one of the most haunting, brutal, and compelling films
I have ever experienced.
The "capturing" motif manifests itself a second way through the extensive
collection of recordings that detailed the history and inner workings of the
Friedman family. Their entire life, from the time the boys were children up to
and including the convictions, was captured on film, videotape, and audio
recordings. Both Arnold and David Friedman were obsessed with filming and taping
the family, while Jesse enjoyed creating extensive audio recordings of
family arguments. David himself shot over 25 hours of footage during the period
between Arnold's arrest and Jesse's
Capturing the Friedmans also probes the history of Arnold Friedman,
the patriarch of the Friedman family. Was Friedman a pedophile? Most assuredly,
he was. The film traces his family history back to the death of his sister as a
child from blood poisoning. This tragic event shattered his family when he was
young, and as a result he and his brother Howard ended up living with his
mother. The family would sleep together in the same room (although in different
beds), and he would be forced to watch and listen as his mother brought home a
series of different men and engaged in sexual activity with Arnold and his
brother in the room. Soon afterwards, 13-year-old Arnold engaged in incestuous
relations with 8-year-old Howard (events which Howard himself denies
remembering.) Arnold also engaged in
sexual activity with boys his own age throughout his teenage years. His fear of
his own continued pedophilia came to fruition when, even in his 40s, he admitted
to molesting two young boys.
Another predominant theme in the film is the relationship between
Arnold and wife Elaine. The nature of their union over the 33 years of their
marriage is examined in detail: was
Arnold always a pedophile, and
simply using Elaine as cover as both as wife and mother? Or was
Arnold simply a sexually ambivalent
individual who may have loved his wife, but only became a sexual being for the
purposes of procreation only? Elaine is portrayed in a sympathetic light, a
woman who did the best she could in an apparently emotionless marriage. Her
relationship with her children is another issue. When
Arnold pleaded guilty, the sons
believed that this was their mother's fault; that it was because of her
insistence for Arnold to plea guilty
in order to help Jesse that their father ended up in prison.
Capturing the Friedmans takes advantage of interviews with former
victims, many of them remaining hidden in shadows, parents of the victims,
townspeople, prosecutors, Judge Abbey Boklan, who presided over the case,
Friedman's attorney Jerry Bernstein, investigative journalist Debbie Nathan, and
Jesse's attorney Peter Panaro. The focus of the documentary goes beyond that of
the immediate Friedman family and into the entire community. The
documentary even briefly touches on the notion of communal competition
among the victims' families, i.e. "whose child was victimized more?", although I
personally find the concept utterly abhorrent. I was aghast at footage
shot the night before Arnold
was to begin serving his sentence. Upon retrospect, I have never seen
a more vivid, disturbing, and starkly morbid epitome of complete and utter
The movie does not take sides. It presents a "warts and all" approach, and
attempts to demonstrate the reality of how things occurred without judging the
Friedmans as either martyrs or demons. Called into question is the lack of
physical evidence in the case. The documentary demonstrates reasonable concerns
into how the victims were questioned and possibly pressured by the authorities.
One particular student, who admitted on tape to agreeing to whatever the
prosecutors wanted just to "get them off his back" leveled testimony that
resulted in sixteen counts of sodomy. Many had no recollection of abuse, and the
questionable use of hypnosis - which often results in
false, implanted memories - was used in order to unearth repressed
recollections of abuse. By the time the film is over, the certainty of the
Friedman's guilt in this case is utterly nebulous. The film doesn't judge or
answer, but simply presents. Arnold Friedman was certainly a pedophile, but did
he molest the children in his den? Did Jesse assist?
With Capturing the Friedmans, director Andrew Jarecki presents an
unbiased look at the hype, the hysteria, and the inner workings of a singular
disturbing family. It probes
into the dynamics of the Friedman family, the love of the brothers for each
other and their father, their strained and often hostile relationship with their
mother, and Arnold's questionable
relationship with pretty much everybody in his life. Capturing the Friedmans
is one of the most riveting and repugnant films I have ever seen. It is
every bit as brilliant as it is disturbing.
Capturing the Friedmans comes in a fully-loaded two-disc Special Edition.
Capturing the Friedmans is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of
1.78:1, and has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing
pleasure. The video presentation is very strong: the source material has been
culled from a variety of sources, including filmed interviews, home movies on
8mm and videotape, television news segments, and numerous still photographs. The
overall quality is fine, with accurate color reproduction and strong contrasts.
Image detail is reasonable, and no compression noise is discernable throughout
the transfer. Of course, the older taped segments suffer due to the inherent
limitations of the source material, but this is to be expected.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The soundtrack sounds bright and
demonstrates reasonable clarity. Dialog levels are warm and natural, without
discernable distortion, hiss, or boxiness. As with the video, older audio
sources from limited source material come across as weaker than normal. The
soundfield opens up considerably with the inclusion of the Andrea Morricone's
fantastic orchestral score and occasional background effects used to enhance the
audio experience. The surround and LFE channels come alive slightly, but never
aggressively or immersively. For the most part, this is a monaural presentation,
and its quiet, restrained delivery suits the nature of this documentary.
Disc One contains a
feature-length audio commentary from director/producer Andrew
Jarecki and editor/producer Richard Hankin. The pair spent three-and-a-half
years working on the project, which had its origins as a documentary about
birthday clowns, and offer their extensive thoughts on both the production of
the film, anecdotal and background information, and their individual dealings
with the Friedmans themselves. The track is low-key and solemn, but informative
and full of fascinating insights. The film's two minute trailer
is also included.
Disc Two is entirely devoted to supplemental material. The
Discussion is a section devoted to various video segments related
to the Friedmans cases. The first is entitled An Altercation at the
Premiere, and is a nine-and-a-half
minute video shot at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film's crew and many of
the actual participants in the legal proceedings (judges, prosecutors,
and investigators) were on hand for the premiere. During the post-film
discussion, in which members of the audience question the filmmakers as well as
the members of the prosecution and David Friedman himself, many heated exchanges
occurred between some of the participants.
The Judge Speaks Out at the Great Neck
Premiere runs slightly over
six-minutes and features Judge Abbey Boklan's reaction to the film during the
post-film discussion. Boklan was critical of the film; she felt that it left out
too much critical information that would have made the Friedmans' guilt much
more evident. Andrew Jarecki does respond to her criticisms. This discussion is
also quite heated, as Judge Boklan is heckled and booed by some audience
members. The video also focuses on an adult attendee of Friedman's computer
classes, who remembers them with warmth and also expunges upon how the children
in the class were happy and joyous throughout.
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
is a text menu with various questions
about the making of the film. Once selected, a video segment provides the answer
to the question. The questions are as follows:
- How did the film come to be?
- Where did the computer games come from?
- What is the relationship between family members today?
- Why did the Friedmans film themselves?
- Why didn't Seth Friedman participate in the film?
- What was Jesse's life like in prison?
... but if you want to know the answers, you have
to get the DVD. So sorry!
Finishing up The Discussion section of
the DVD is Charlie Rose Interviews Director Andrew Jarecki, a
twenty-minute segment in which the famed PBS interviewer speaks with the
director of Capturing the Friedmans. Much of the information
experienced in earlier sections of the disc is repeated here, but the interview
remains informative and compelling throughout.
The next section is entitled Unseen Home
Movies, which consist of three home movie segments which were not
included (or briefly touched upon) in the film. These include Passover
Seder, a two minute segment in which
Arnold is under house arrest during the
holiday, Grandma Speaks, twenty seconds of grandmotherly
advice, and Jesse's Last Night, three minutes of footage
shot the night before Jesse's incarceration.
The section entitled The
Case features footage (presumably edited out of the film) that
looks into how the investigators and prosecutors built their case. The
Investigation runs for slightly over eight minutes and details how the
Friedman house was searched, and looks into allegations that the Friedman's were
actually producing pornography in their own house. A chilling excerpt from an
interview between a detective and a computer-class attendee ends this segment.
Additional Suspects is a seven-minute segment that looks into a
police allegation that there were three other accomplices who also abused the
computer students in the Friedman home (a situation which was never examined in
the film itself.) Great Neck Outraged is a four minute video
which looks at the people of Great Neck and their reactions to the case.
A Principal Witness for the Prosecution is a three-and-a-half
minute segment in which a student, who provided testimony which resulted in 35
counts of sodomy, is interviewed. He appeared in the film, so this is extra
footage in which severe doubt is placed upon the reliability of his testimony.
The Family is divided into five sections, each one devoted to
a member of the Friedman family.
three video segments that detail his retirement party, his letter in which he
recanted his confession and explained his pedophilia, and another letter
featuring his last words from prison. Elaine contains videos of
the newlywed Arnold and Elaine, her feelings of often being overwhelmed inside
the family, and her arrest for obstructing justice while their house was being
searched. Jesse contains video of Jesse's first day out prison,
his current life, and his current-day recollections. Seth
simply has a message indicating that Seth Friedman declined any participation in
the film. David contains the twenty-minute short film Just
a Clown, the film that director Andrew Jarecki was creating when he became
introduced to the Friedman story. Finally, Audio Scrapbook
contains numerous audio clips pertaining to Arnie, Elaine, Jesse,
David, the boys, the family, and the house.
The Score contains a seven minute video about recording the
orchestral score in Rome with
composer Andrea Morricone.
Finally, the DVD-ROM section of
the disc contains six fascinating documents relating to the Friedmans, as well
as an MP3 featuring an original recording of "Jazzbo Mambo" by Arnito Rey
(Arnold Friedman) and his Orchestra.
Capturing the Friedmans is a powerhouse of a documentary
that will chill and puzzle you, but there is no mistaking the skill that went
into producing the film. The two-disc DVD of the film is a winner from start to
finish: the presentation is very satisfying, and the wealth of supplemental
material is quite exhaustive. I honestly cannot imagine what else they could
have thrown in to make this set more complete. Capturing the Friedmans
is not an easy film to watch - it will haunt you for days afterward - but
it is a compelling and fascinating look into the horrors hidden right around the
corner. This DVD release is absolutely stunning in both its content and
delivery, and it comes highly recommended indeed.