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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Capturing the Friedmans
Capturing the Friedmans
HBO // Unrated // January 27, 2004
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted January 29, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The Movie

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, New York.

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 conviction.

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 denial.

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.

The DVD

Capturing the Friedmans comes in a fully-loaded two-disc Special Edition.

Video:

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.

Audio:

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.

Extras:

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 New York 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:

  1. How did the film come to be?
  2. Where did the computer games come from?
  3. What is the relationship between family members today?
  4. Why did the Friedmans film themselves?
  5. Why didn't Seth Friedman participate in the film?
  6. 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. Arnold contains 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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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