PARK CITY, Utah — In “Capturing the Friedmans,” a documentary about a middle-class Jewish family come undone, filmmaker Andrew Jarecki uses ordinary memorabilia — home video clips, snapshots — to tell an extraordinary tale.
Here is the family of five visiting a farm in New Jersey, celebrating Chanukah, swimming at the shore. Here they are fighting and falling apart as Arnold, the father, and Jesse, the youngest son, are accused of molesting boys who came to the Friedmans’ Great Neck, N.Y., home for computer classes during the 1980s.
The film took the coveted Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival here last week.
“Capturing the Friedmans” (Hit the Ground Running Films) tells the story of how in 1987, Nassau County police arrested award-winning teacher Arnold Friedman and his youngest son, Jesse, 18, on charges including child abuse, creating an uproar in the heavily Jewish community of Great Neck on Long Island. While maintaining their innocence during the ensuing media frenzy, the Friedmans turned the lens on themselves, videotaping both their family fights and celebrations as the legal battles wore on.
As Jarecki pieces together the Friedmans’ tale, he jumps between the past and present, showing the multiple layers of truth behind a case long thought closed when both Arnold and Jesse pleaded guilty.
“The issue of what’s true is what the film is mostly about,” Jarecki, 39, told the Forward. “Who did right by each other?”
The film contrasts the statements of prosecutors with the Friedmans’ claims and testimony of some of the students who took computer classes at the Friedmans’ home, but Jarecki didn’t set out to make a film about pedophilia in Great Neck. Quite the opposite, in fact: In 2000, having sold the company he founded, Moviefone, to America Online, Jarecki decided to make a documentary about the light-hearted topic of children’s birthday party entertainers in New York City.
As it turns out, one of New York City’s top birthday party clowns is David Friedman, the eldest son of the late Arnold and his ex-wife Elaine. After following David for six months, Jarecki became frustrated with his inability to get David to open up. Sensing a deeper story, Jarecki showed footage of David to a film editor who said, “‘I can’t stop asking myself what makes this clown so angry,’” Jarecki told the Forward.
Jarecki convinced David to travel with the camera crew to his childhood home, which had been sold to another family. The woman who answered the door at 17 Picadilly Rd. let David inside to take a trip down memory lane, while Jarecki and his crew waited outside. When David emerged visibly “rattled,” Jarecki said he probed his elusive subject and found that beneath the clown suit lay a person wounded by a family history dark with anger and deception.
So came about “Capturing the Friedmans,” a double entendre that refers to both Arnold’s and Jesse’s arrests and the documentary’s unique look at the troubled family. Unlike the media of the 1980s, which mostly took the side of the victims, Jarecki seems to side with the Friedmans, using the documentary to debunk the prosecution’s case. In addition to questioning the police’s findings, Jarecki looks at the Great Neck community, putting the accusations of abuse in the context of a 1980s society hypersensitive to accusations of child molestation.
“I see Great Neck as just one big shtetl,” Jarecki told the Forward. Great Neck is a “pulsating organism and inside the little organism the community perceived there was a bad cell.” That cell, Jarecki said, was Arnold. “The community organized white cells to get the bad cell.”
The film, which at press time did not have a distributor, is eliciting strong reactions among viewers.
Mary Felix, who lived in Great Neck at the time of the Friedman arrest and whose son took computer lessons at the Friedmans, came to a screening here of the film. “I thought it was ‘Capturing the Friedmans,’ as in criminals,” she told the Forward after the screening, saying, “I know the parents of children” who were molested at the Friedmans’ home. “They’re making [the Friedmans] sound like they’re the victims and they’re not.”
Rick Hinshaw, a spokesman for the Nassau County prosecutor’s office — members of which were interviewed for “Capturing the Friedmans” — declined to comment, saying he and other members of the office have not seen the film.
A film critic for Northern California’s Contra Costa Times, Mary Pols, who also saw the film during the festival, felt that the movie dealt in shades of gray. “What’s so brilliant about the movie is the way it toys with our perceptions of the truth and leaves us panting with mental exhaustion at the end, unsure what to believe and what to discount,” she wrote the Forward in an e-mail. “You go from being certain that Arnie Friedman is being railroaded by community hysteria to accepting the ugly possibility that he was capable of these monstrous acts, or more likely some small portion of them. More than a dozen years after the fact, Jarecki makes us feel as though we’re living in Great Neck ourselves at that very moment in time, trying to get a handle on the reality of what a local teacher did or did not do.”