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Laramie Movie Scope:
Capturing the Friedmans

A documentary of contrasting viewpoints

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 10, 2003 -- “Capturing the Friedmans” is a harrowing documentary about a family coming apart at the seams. It is either a tragedy about wrongful prosecution, or a tragedy about a family in denial. Incredibly, these private, family battles were captured on film or on video tape for the whole world to see, and no two people in the film seem to be able to agree on what really happened.

The film project, directed by Andrew Jarecki (co-founder of MovieFone) started out as a profile of popular party clown David Friedman. Friedman is one of those clowns who is literally laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. When Jarecki started looking into what was making Friedman sad, it led him into a dysfunctional family under siege. It was also a family that had documented its spectacular rise and collapse with film and videotape over many years. From this gold mine of private footage, supplemented with interviews and new footage, a remarkable and sad story emerges. It is a rare insight into an American family that may not be as out of the ordinary as it seems to be.

The film opens with a David Friedman's private video diary. He never intended for anyone else to see it. Friedman, clearly in great distress, weeps because his family is literally falling apart. Nobody on the outside saw it coming. In 1988 Friedmans were a successful family with a nice home in the upscale town of Great Neck on Long Island. One day, postal inspectors obtained a search warrant for the Friedman house. Inspectors were looking for child pornography. They knew David Friedman's father, Arnold Friedman, an award-winning teacher, musician and author, had pornography. Friedman had been caught in a sting operation that had been going on for years. A postal inspector, posing as a postal carrier, had delivered pornographic materials to his house earlier that same day the search warrant was issued. A police investigation soon followed. Police, thinking Friedman may have molested students in the computer classes he taught out of his home, interviewed a number of Arnold Friedman's computer class students. Police got, or perhaps helped to create, what seemed to be genuine eyewitness accounts of sexual encounters, sometimes violent ones between children and Arnold Friedman along with his son, Jesse. Although Arnold is an admitted pedophile, evidence suggests most pedophiles don't sexually molest children (For more on this, see see the following article about the Friedmans in the Village Voice), and the kind of violence alleged in this case is extremely rare. In 1988, pedophilia was even less well understood than it is today.

News of the investigation spread like wildfire around the New York area. Arnold and Jesse were eventually charged with hundreds of child sexual abuse counts. Although David steadfastly defended his father and brother, his mother did not. The couple's third son, Seth, declined to be interviewed for the film. Elaine Friedman, Arnold's wife, felt betrayed by her husband and she withdrew from him. David never forgave her for not backing his father. The family was disintegrating under the pressure of the investigation, the expense of the legal defense, and the unrelenting media coverage. Through it all, however, they continued to cover the collapse of their family with video cameras. Marriage counseling didn't help. In fact, it appeared to have speeded up the collapse of the marriage.

The guilt or innocence of Arnold and Jesse Friedman is an open question in the movie. There is plenty of evidence on both sides of the matter. Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist who is an expert on child abuse cases based on “false memories,” appears in the film, along with other experts. The case against the Friedmans is strikingly similar to that against Kelly Michaels, a New Jersey day care teacher accused of similar crimes against day care children. After nine years of court battles starting in 1985, Michaels' conviction on over a hundred sex abuse charges, and her 47-year prison sentence were overturned. Prosecutors finally admitted they had no credible evidence against her and they declined to re-file the charges against her. Like the Friedman case, there was no physical evidence to back up the testimony of children. Indeed, physical evidence often contradicted their testimony. In many cases, children were coerced by police into testifying against Michaels (click here to see an example of how children were questioned). Similar allegations of coercion were made by some of the children interviewed in the film. Some were even subjected to hypnosis when they couldn't remember anything incriminating against the Friedmans. With the aid of hypnosis, they did remember things, or they seemed to. Memories generated by hypnosis can sometimes be false. A boyhood friend of the Friedmans who was in the Friedman home three or four days every week during the time of the alleged sexual abuse, said he never saw any evidence of such behavior. Parents often dropped in at the Friedman home unnannounced to pick up their children. None of them ever witnessed the alleged abuse. None of the hundreds of children who took music or computer lessons at the Friedman home ever reported any abuse prior to the police pornography investigation. None of the piano students ever came forward with such allegations, despite the publicity surrounding the case. Police never got a list of piano students, so they were never interrogated.

The Friedman case is also very similar to the McMartin preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California. Starting in 1983, the case lasted six years and cost the state $15 million, but resulted in no convictions. It turned out the testimony of children in the abuse case was unreliable because the children were heavily influenced by improper police interrogation techniques. Similar methods of interrogation appear to have been used in the Friedman and Michaels cases. As a result of these, and similar interrogation abuses over the years, police have changed their methods of questioning children. As a result, no similar hoaxes (called multi-victim multi-offender cases) have surfaced. The Friedman case was started while the McMartin and Michaels cases were still under way. Nathan said the big difference in the Friedman case and others, was that the family was not united behind the accused. In the film, she said, “The other cases that I've written about, those families have been much stronger. First of all, they've started from a monolithic feeling of innocence, which didn't exist in this family.” Nathan has also written that the real child abuse in such “false memory” cases were perpetrated by the investigators rather than the accused.

“Capturing the Friedmans” is a documentary that provides no easy answers. It takes no position on whether or not the Friedmans were guilty. Every person who is interviewed seems to have a different recollection of the events leading up to the trial. Few people in the film, besides David and Jesse, defend the innocence of Arnold Friedman. One of Arnold's few defenders is his brother, Howard Friedman. Arnold's and Howard's childhood memories are also quite different. Howard, who is openly gay, doesn't remember having sex with Arnold, even though Arnold said it happened. Interviews with Jesse and his attorney reveal very different accounts about their legal strategy in the case. Each of them said the dubious legal strategy was the other guy's idea. The accounts of Arnold's behavior by his wife and his son, David, are similarly quite different. It is a documentary with as many questions as answers. At the same time, it is a very interesting and very tragic story. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2003 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)