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‘Capturing the Friedmans’: A Shakespearean Tragedy on Long Island

It is difficult to imagine a documentary more emotionally excruciating than “Capturing the Friedmans.” Frederick Wiseman’s celebrated films “Titticut Follies” and “High School” may deftly and painfully expose the systemic negligence of social institutions, and a masterpiece such as Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” scorches hearts yet elevates us with its respect for history and truth. But “Capturing the Friedmans” occupies a far more ambiguous space in film-going, for we are as much repulsed as we are emotionally fixated by it — as confused by the lives and decisions of its protagonists as we are empathetically drawn to them. What makes “Capturing the Friedmans” so painful is not that this family is extraordinary, but that, in their terrors and flaws, they are so ordinary.

A simple precis of what happens in “Capturing the Friedmans” cannot fully convey the film’s power. The Friedmans were a typical, middle-class Jewish family — Arnold and Elaine, and their three sons David, Seth and Jesse — who lived in the comfortable community of Great Neck, Long Island. During Thanksgiving week in 1987, federal agents snared Arnold, an award-winning high school teacher, in a sting operation aimed at capturing pedophiles. Arnold had indeed ordered and received through the mail a magazine featuring nude boys, but his arrest triggered a fishing expedition by the Nassau County police, who sought out grade-school students who took computer classes from Arnold in his home. The investigation found several boys who accused both Arnold and 18-year-old Jesse of child molestation, ranging from improper touching to violent sexual assault. Though all of the accusations could be disproved — director Andrew Jarecki exposes the ineptitude of the investigation, in which young boys were frequently intimidated or hypnotized into making accusations that were demonstrably untrue — popular hysteria was so high that Arnold was talked into plea-bargaining a long jail sentence in the hope that Jesse would avoid jail time. The gambit didn’t work. Arnold went to jail for 25 years and committed suicide there six years later. Jesse pled guilty and, in an attempt to show diminished capacity, claimed that he had been sexually abused by his father — a charge he now totally denies. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison and was released after 13 years.

Through interviews with family members, police officers and lawyers, as well as news and courtroom footage, Jarecki does an expert job giving us the larger frame of this story — a cross between a particularly potent episode of “Law and Order” and an exposé of a legal witch-hunt. But the power of the film is in its use of the family’s own videos. The Friedmans were near obsessive in their desire for documentation. Not only did they chronicle happy summer days at the beach; they had no problem videotaping impassioned, acrimonious family discussions. It is here that “Capturing the Friedmans” becomes almost hallucinatory in its intensity.

During this extraordinary footage, we see the Friedman family crumble, their love and support of one another disappear, as decades of recrimination and doubt begin to surface. In scene after scene David, Seth and Jesse rush to their father’s defense and turn upon their mother Elaine, accusing her of betraying the family. In other scenes, Elaine, who has spent two years publicly supporting Arnold and working on his case, snaps and defends herself by lashing out at her sons, decrying what she now feels was a terrible marriage. Later, Arnold — terrified of going to prison and wanting to find some way to save Jesse — begins sobbing, crying out in the sounds of a wounded trapped animal. And there is a videotape of a family Seder that is so painful as to be nearly unwatchable, as the veneer of religious feeling, family closeness and even civility gives way to bitterness and rancor.

Strikingly, the Friedmans never exhibit an impulse for life outside of documentation; they acknowledge the camera, even perform for it, but never turn away from it. And some of the film’s most painful scenes are not the screaming family fights over loyalty or lack of love, but super-8 film movie clips of the family frolicking in their yard or on vacation, which beg the question: How did the Friedmans get from there to this morass of near-Shakespearean tragedy, in which even the best intentions go hideously awry and less-highly motivated calculations are simply accepted as the human condition?

As good as it is, the film fails to take on one issue that is always, and obviously, lurking beneath the surface: How does the Friedmans’ Judaism function in their lives? Nearly all reviewers have shied away from discussing the family’s Judaism, likely out of fear that calling attention to their religion and culture would be read as connecting Judaism to the taint of alleged pedophila. (At least one white supremacist Web site — the Stormfront White Nationalist Community — has used the film’s “jewish father/son child molester team” to promote its antisemitic agenda.)

Whatever happened to the Friedmans did not happen because they were Jewish, but we are left with questions: Did the importance and centrality of the mother in the American Jewish home place Elaine in a vulnerable position that caused her to blame herself for what was happening to her family? Is the way that David and Jesse take their father’s side against their mother a product of some dynamic that is ingrained in Jewish family life? Is the need for success and a picture-perfect life somehow intrinsic to middle-class Jewish life in America? It may be impossible to answer these questions, but the film undoubtedly raises them.

The primary tension in “Capturing the Friedmans” is in watching this family desperately try to find ways to stay together as they are ripping themselves apart. We think of the family as a haven in a heartless world, and Jewish culture values the family even more highly. But ambivalence is present in everyone’s relationships with their families, and the power of “Capturing the Friedmans” is that it shows us — in the extreme — the potential that ambivalence has to become embittered and hateful.

Michael Bronski writes about culture, sex and politics for The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice. His latest book is “Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps” (St. Martin’s, 2003).

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