“Right now readers have an incomplete version of the story, and when the report is issued, the public will see the whole picture and draw their own conclusions about the case.” In June 2013, John Byrne, spokesman for the Nassau County District Attorney's office was asked to comment on the ongoing, seemingly endless Jesse Friedman case. His assertion of faith in this "complete version," that it might exist or become visible to anyone, may be admirable or naïve or just hopeful, but it sounds preposterous here.
The story of Jesse Friedman and his father Arnold became well known during the late '80s, when they were arrested and charged with molesting children in the basement of their Great Neck, Long Island home. Here, the story went, Jesse (18 at the time of his arrest in 1988) and Arnold spent years raping and otherwise abusing hundreds of boys and girls (aged eight to ten) under the guise of teaching computer classes.
The case was sensational, from the moment when 14 children told their stories to the moment when Jesse and Arnold both pleaded guilty, separately, under much media scrutiny and threat of lifelong jail terms. For Arnold, this was what happened, as he died in prison. Though he was released from prison in 2001, after serving 13 years, Jesse remains in another sort of prison, and he continues to fight to clear his name.
He is not alone in this effort. One proponent is Andrew Jarecki, the filmmaker whose 2003 documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, raised serious questions concerning the investigation and prosecution of the original case. The film is screening at "witnesses have continued to come forward who believe Jesse Friedman (his father is now deceased) was wrongfully convicted -- and that the crimes never occurred."
Today, Capturing the Friedmans resonates in multiple ways, posing questions about truth, evidence, storytelling, and -- for Jesse and his family -- the improprieties of legal systems. As much as he tries to live his life today, he remains a registered sex offender, and so his life is restricted. The film is, as the title suggests, is about capturing this family, in various ways. For, as it turns out, the Friedmans themselves were ruthless self-documenters: Jesse's brother David's video footage and family photos are everywhere in the film, along with 8mm home movies, taken by everyone, including Arnold and the boys' mother, Elaine. These many images indicate the many ways any single-seeming experience might be understood, framed, and remembered.
Much of this footage, including David's confessional outrage, is also about capturing the cops as they coming after Arnold, an award-winning high school teacher, and Jesse. In trying to come to a sense of what happened, Jarecki interviews Elaine and David, Arnold’s brother Howie, some police investigators (one describes the precise wrong way to question a child, essentially implanting ideas into her mind, announcing proudly that this was the procedure the department followed when going house to house during their inquiry) and a judge (brother Seth declined to be interviewed for the film).
Jarecki also speaks to several of Arnold’s ex-students, who either can’t imagine that such events occurred (hair-pulling, raping, smearing peanut-butter in the classroom in front of other students, and all without a single bit of physical evidence, ever, over the years the abuse was supposedly taking place) or one who is filmed in identity-protecting shadow, and can’t be sure, because he was hypnotized when he came up with his “memories.”
In other words, the film, for all its lack of professed judgment of its subjects, makes a clear case that Arnold and Jesse were victims -- of neighbors and news media and a judicial system (see also: the McMartin trial, made into an HBO fiction film starring James Woods). To frame this argument, Jarecki talks with journalist Debbie Nathan, who has previously reported on such cases and was contacted by the Friedmans in 1989, just after they were incarcerated (see her recent summary of the case in the Village Voice). She supports the film’s contention that the case was bogus, a function of its historical moment and a tragedy for the family.
As grueling as the story is on its own, the film underlines all the injustice and hypocrisy heaped on the family with frankly unnecessary manipulations, snapshots of the family on the beach or in the backyard, transition shots with sentimental music, sprinklers and trees to set off the unsoiled surfaces that hide secrets and calamities (if the Friedmans are hiding such secrets, such images suggest, what else is going on in the burbs?).
Yet, for all the poignancy such shots Jarecki’s access to photos and exteriors is nothing compared to the other goldmine he stumbled on. The founder of MovieFone, he sold the company and set out to make a film, in particular, about children’s party clowns. With this project in mind, he began to interview Silly Billy, that is, David Friedman, a popular party clown in New York City. Impressed by the young man’s seeming candor as much as his often visible anger, Jarecki proceeded to ask questions that took them beyond the clown business, and soon learned the disquieting backstory.
Most incredibly, David granted access to hours and hours of his own home movies -- he filmed and taped his family throughout the arrest and trial period to document his family’s implosion and then granted Jarecki free use of the footage. This is the most devastating aspect of the film, not David’s strenuous defense of his father, condemnation of Elaine (he blames her for convincing Arnold and Jesse to plead rather than stand trial), or even his own sense of guilt, clearly ravaging him, not for having done anything wrong, but for having survived the ordeal. His video “confessionals” are harrowing.
And, it turns out that Arnold carried his own burden for years before the arrest, a pedophile with a stash of magazines discovered by cops with a search warrant in 1987. He recalls that, following his own molestation, when he was 13, he abused his eight-year-old brother, Howard. That Howard has no similar recollection surely complicates the confession (and brings poor Howard, interviewed as an adult, nearly to tears). It also lays out the film’s most sustained, least answerable question. What is the truth? And how would you know it if you saw it?
David’s home videos appear at first look to offer some sort of truth, if only because they present raw, difficult pain. More acutely and more completely than could any interview or assembled research, these scenes -- the Friedmans arguing in the kitchen, over Seder dinner, in the basement -- render the devastating toll that this revelation took on them, individually and as an increasingly decrepit unit.
They are thus captured, repeatedly, even as they remain elusive, their stories incomplete, David’s stated intention in revealing his family’s horrific story is to exonerate his father and brother (whether or not he means to indict his mother, he appears to do so), and the film’s effect is to challenge the investigative and official processes. But it also challenges the very process of truth-seeking, from its hope for answers or truths to its necessary incompleteness.
And so, most provocatively and brilliantly, in doing all of these things, Capturing the Friedmans also undermines its own ostensible project, to find a truth, to get at a story that makes sense, that explains what happened. And so, the project becomes much more complicated, dense, and endless. The film bravely turns in on itself, resolving nothing and capturing less.
Capturing the FriedmansDirector: Andrew Jarecki
Cast: The Friedman family: Arnold, Elaine, David, Seth, Jesse, Howard; and John McDermott, Detective Frances Galasso, Detective Anthony Sgueglia
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
US date: 2013-10-15 (Stranger Than Fiction)
In 2003, Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans” quickly became a landmark achievement in the history of non-fiction film, snatching up a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, generating massive buzz and heated controversy in the wake of its release, and eventually landing an Oscar nomination. The filmmaker’s dark investigation into the pedophilia charges against the late Great Neck resident Arnold Friedman and his teenage son Jesse, partially told through the family’s uncomfortably intimate home movies from the ’80s, capturing the dissolution of an American family in extraordinary detail. It also hinted at the possibility of injustices surrounding some of the charges leveled against the family. Most critics loved it; nobody was sure how to feel about its troubled subjects.
Nearly a decade later, “Capturing the Friedmans” is now available online, free for the month of April, via Indiewire parent company SnagFilms. On the phone with Indiewire last week, Jarecki spoke about the impact the movie had on the Friedman family, why the story probably needs a sequel, and his similarly controversial next project. “Capturing the Friedmans” is embedded at the conclusion of the interview.
When was the last time you watched the film?
I recently showed it to my son, who’s about 14, and it was pretty fascinating to see it about 10 years after it came out. I think he had just been curious. It’s the kind of movie you show your kid at some point, but not when they’re only old enough to watch their first movie.
Do you think it has aged well? Did anything surprise you about it?
There’s a feeling, when you’re watching the film and haven’t for a while, that there are things that have magically developed over time, ways that the film interacts with your own philosophy, beliefs that you hold that you suddenly see espoused in the film. It’s interesting me how much that film influenced other things I’ve done since then. I’ve always been interested in this idea of looking at these monster stories and trying to really understand the mechanics underneath. That’s very much true of this movie I made “All Good Things” as well as “Catfish,” which I produced. You look at something people find objectionable and if you really take a long look at it, you realize how different things may be from how they initially appeared.
When specifically are you talking about when you say you see your own philosophies reflected in the film?
I think with respect to the Friedman family, when we went into the film we didn’t know that we were making a movie about this legal case. We just went into hoping to make a film about professional children’s birthday entertainers. When I started understanding an incredible secret story behind the Friedmans, it became more and more clear that there was this hall of mirrors lying behind that initial impression. As we got deeper and deeper into it, we started to see how the story had been altered over time.
And you wanted to clear things up.
I think we went into it with a lot of compassion for the Friedman family. We didn’t know exactly what had happened, but we knew that the way the community reacted to the charges against them was so vicious and one-sided that it would be required for us to try and understand them as people, not one-dimensional evildoers. As we started to get into it, it was clear that there was a true question as to whether these crimes had even taken place.
Watching the film now is a unique experience because that the story never ended. The Friedmans–most of them, anyway–are still dealing with the repercussions of Arnold and Jesse’s incarcerations. What are some of the key developments since “Capturing the Friedmans” came out?
I was just looking at the timeline of the case before you called. I realized that in December of this year, it will be the 25th anniversary of Jesse Friedman’s arrest. Jesse has been through a tremendous amount of change in those 25 years. He was arrested as an 18-year-old kid. He then spent 13 years in jail and has been out now for over a decade. The whole time, he’s been fighting to get his conviction overturned. That’s typical when you have somebody in jail and you find they have a tremendous amount of motivation for getting out of jail. He’s doing this without any resources, he really has no money. He’s married to an amazing girl who’s been very supportive and has managed to make a life for himself — despite the fact that he’s still considered a level-three violent sexual predator. This is a guy who couldn’t be more gracious and low key.
I think it impressed me to see how he’s evolved since then. Needless to say, the predictions by the judge and other people that Jesse was going to become a sexual predator in the years that followed, and if you let a person like this out of jail he was going to go offend again — that may be true of somebody who was perpetuated certain kinds of crimes, but what does it say about somebody who was in jail for 13 years and has been a model citizen since then? He’s happily married and living a low-key existence in Connecticut, spending a great deal of time fighting to clear his name.
In that case, does the original movie need a sequel?
I think it might make sense to update the story at some point. Certain things are happening in this story anyway without the filmmaking part getting engaged. About two years ago, Jesse’s efforts to get this case reexamined yielded a very positive surprise because [he’s represented by] an indefatigable civil rights lawyer. I think he has 100 clients and I’d be surprised if two of them pay him any money. He really fought hard to get Jesse’s case in front of the Second Circuit, the second highest court of the land. The Second Circuit came out with a really remarkable, unusual opinion that was almost unprecedented. They thought there was a strong likelihood that Jesse was unfairly convicted and his guilty plea was coerced. The judge, by threatening him, which you see in the film, put him in an impossible position. That kind of behavior has been shown by the courts to be impermissibly coercive.
The judge said, “If you choose to go to trial and lose, I’m going to give you the maximum sentence.” That’s what happened in this case. So the Second Circuit came out with a very strong mandate and asked the National County District Attorney–a new person, because the old DA has passed away–to reopen the case and consider whether Jesse’s conviction should be overturned. So that was a big, big event that surprised a lot of people. Maybe there was some advantage from the profile of the movie and Jesse being out there fighting for so long. So now the Nassau County DA has agreed to reexamine the case. We’re really hoping there’s an opportunity for an appropriate review.
Did you consider the possibility that the movie could have this impact when you were making it?
I guess I tried to do two things at the time. Number one, I said look: Arnold Friedman was a pedophile and kind of irredeemable. But that doesn’t mean his son was guilty of these shocking crimes. The fact that Arnold Friedman possessed a small amount of child pornography is equally unsupportable but also doesn’t say anything about his son. In the course of our investigation and the work we did, we were studious about separating out Arnold from Jesse. Here you have this 18-year-old, who would have been 14 or 15 at the time of these outrageous crimes, and we just said that it requires another look. When you look at the primitive quality of the police work at the time — how they bullied the children in the interviews — you realize that, whatever your gut feeling is about somebody’s innocence or guilt, that’s not a way to run an investigation. Once the well is poisoned, there’s really no way to convict somebody based on that kind of investigation.
It’s hard not to think about this discussion in light of the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which also involved unfairly convicted teenagers. The issue isn’t whether or not they’re guilty but instead the ineffectualness of the American justice system. Did you always think of the movie as a work of advocacy?
It depends on the constituency. I think I was always advocating for truth. I was advocating a level of understanding. The film was never made as an advocacy piece for Jesse Friedman, which may differentiate it from the “Paradise Lost” films. But at the same time, you couldn’t watch the film without recognizing that the process of justice was so broken in this situation that Jesse had to be reconsidered as an individual, not as his father’s diabolical assistant, but rather as a person who was ultimately in an impossible situation. When the police are making false statements to the press about finding child pornography [all over the house], and Newsday feels comfortable publishing it, before you know it, everybody in town is reading this version of events.
So for us, we knew we were going back and digging through material. We didn’t know what we would find; we thought we would find more information that would indicate Jesse’s guilt, but we didn’t find that. We found that the one boy in the film who speaks about remembering being abused is a very troubled person with a very damaged set of memories and is contradictory about most of the things he tells us. Then we went back to interview the judge and the judge said, in so many words, “There was never a doubt in my mind as to their guilt.” To the extend that it was an advocacy piece for anything, it was a request to the audience to open their minds to the possibility that this was an unfair conviction.
We’ve talked about Jesse Friedman. Tell me about David Friedman. Has his work suffered as a part of being involved with this movie?
You can tell from the film that David has never been the friendliest person in the world. He has made a career on his slightly cantankerous reputation. He’s funny and sarcastic, a good businessman, not necessarily your imagined version of a party clown. On the other hand, he’s a good storyteller. It’s unfortunate that the biggest story in his life had to be this one. I’m sure David could have had a wonderful life in other ways. This whole case damaged the life of so many people. I always had a manageable relationship with him. It became clear, at a certain point, that the stakes of the film were really with Jesse, that David’s younger brother really was the one who had been most damaged by the events that took place in Great Neck in the late ’80s. Ultimately, David did a generous thing by agreeing to participate in the film knowing that it might have a negative impact on his career. Do I think it has? I think David would say so, but he’s also in some ways healthier than he’s been. That’s my personal opinion. He has shifted his career from being the guy who goes and entertains at parties. Now he’s on the lecture tour circuit. It turns out there are conventions of magicians and children’s entertainers in many, many countries. David goes and does seminars on how to entertain kids. I think that’s a positive outcome, but there’s no question that for him to reveal these things in the film obviously required some guts. He did it, in large part, because Jesse was in jail at the time.
The biggest gap in the movie is Seth Friedman, the one member of the family who didn’t agree to participate. Do you think that held the movie back in some way? And will he ever speak publicly about this case?
It’s an interesting question. I think if Jesse’s exonerated there’s a chance that Seth might reemerge because that would be such a big event in their family history. Seth was always mistrustful of the film and anything having to do with law enforcement. He’s pretty politicized in the first place. I can understand the desire not to be a part of it. You don’t come out of this situation thinking you want to look on the bright side. I never really talked to him at length. But from the standpoint of the mystery of the film, there’s something intriguing about having a mysterious character who doesn’t show up. In reality, I don’t think his absence was in any way sinister. He was long out of the house and in college when these events took place.
You mentioned earlier the connection between this film and “Catfish,” which you produced. Disregarding the question of whether or not that movie was staged, it really illustrates the way young people tend to record everything about their lives now. “Capturing the Friedmans,” which contains a lot of home videos shot by the kids, now seems to reflect an earlier stage in that process.
First of all, living people generally have some right to privacy — unless they don’t. For example, “All Good Things,” which was largely based on Robert Durst, we had some freedom there because he’s a public figure and has been in the press many times. There was a certain level of freedom in portraying those characters. But for the documentary, ultimately we needed to have David and Jesse Friedman’s permission in order to really make that film. Maybe we didn’t need Arnold’s permission because he was deceased, but we needed his wife’s permission. In “Catfish,” we did the same thing. We were very careful to make sure that Angela Wesselman was comfortable with the film that was made about her life. The existence of the footage doesn’t automatically make you available as the subject for a film. Unless they’re a public figure, they have a right to control that. On the other hand, there’s something about the footage existing that makes it come out.
So how do you apply that reasoning to “Catfish”? Did those filmmakers violate the privacy of their subject?
I always think you have to show a degree of humanity and sensitivity when you’re dealing with people in extreme circumstances. The Friedmans were in an extreme circumstance and so was Angela. Even Yaniv and the boys who filmed “Catfish” were. And so was Robert Durst. But I’ll say two things: I never really understood any tendency to believe that “Catfish” was a put-on. I’ve seen all the footage, every piece of conversation in the three-hour drive to her house, not the 30 seconds in the movie. It was never a possibility that we were going to manipulate that story. We were really comfortable with what happened. There was a whole news report, a long piece, where they went and visited Angela. It was clear that these people were part of a story that was captured like any documentary. Maybe the movie came out at the very beginning of all this found footage horror movie stuff, and so that there’s this idea that maybe “Paranormal Activity” looks kind of like the real capturing events, so what if “Catfish” is somehow the inverse of that?
The directors didn’t exactly combat that theory by accepting a gig directing “Paranormal Activity 3.”
Yeah, I mean, I think they got a kick out of that, but it didn’t make “Catfish” any less true. With respect to Angela, she’s a delicate person, so there’s a tremendous amount of compassion that went into that. They didn’t find out the truth about her in a punitive way. As soon as they knew what they were up against, that Angela was a complex, troubled person, they immediately put their softer side up and really talked with compassion about her. I would say that Angela probably has the best answer to this. She says, “Before you feel sorry for me, let’s remember who invented this story. I created the character of Megan and collected 500 photographs of her. I drew Yaniv into this adventure.” In large part, I think she sees this incredible story she created, with multiple layers and characters, as one of her biggest accomplishments. It was Dickensian. So it really has a lot to do with what the subject feels about the experience. Does it make sense, if you’re making a film about the Friedmans and being genuinely compassionate toward them but they hate the film, that raises an issue. In this situation, they felt this situation would be good for them because it would yield some greater understanding. I think Angela felt the same way.
What’s next for you?
I’m making a documentary at the moment on the same subject. Right before “All Good Things” came out, I was contacted by Robert Durst. So I’ve been working very hard on another film that addresses those same issues. I know they’ve already expressed a lot of hostility toward the film and threatened people who agreed to participate, so I have no doubt that will continue.
With “Capturing the Friedmans” streaming on SnagFilms and “All Good Things” doing such great business on VOD, do you feel comfortable with alternative distribution methods?
We had an interesting release strategy with “All Good Things” because we were essentially day-and-date. We had a really big opening weekend but were still able to benefit from the very wide audience that was interested in that film. We actually found out after the fact that it was the number-one VOD movie in 2011. That was an example of a movie that obviously interested people, they told their friends about it, and there’s something great about lowering the bar in terms of the hassle you put people through to see your movie. So of course I love the idea that the movie was going to premiere in theaters, but at the same time it was very powerful to be able to share these movies in a way that lets everybody access them.
In my past life, I started Moviefone. One of the reasons that I was drawn to do that was because it was just incredibly annoying to go see a movie when it should be the simplest thing in the world. I lived in New York and it was really difficult to figure out the showtimes for a movie playing down the street. The phone was always busy and once you got through you found out it was sold out. I was driven very early on by the idea that that ought to be easier. I have the iPad 3 now. I was in India last week visiting my son. We came back and my wife wanted to watch “Ghandi.” I went through giant big-screen television and every conceivable platform, including Netflix. I couldn’t find it. Then I clicked on my iPad and put my speaker next to it, and it was just super-high definition resolution and I watched this Attenborough classic big screen movie on my iPad 3.
So you started Moviefone, made a popular documentary, then made a narrative feature. Now you’re working on a documentary again. How do you identify yourself professionally? Are you mainly a documentarian or…?
It entirely has to do with the subject matter. As I’ve learned, even with the film I’m working on right, you can start out with a film that’s a narrative feature and something about that film unlocks a door to a documentary. I’ve seen it happen the other way before, too. That reminds me that I can’t predict where the next thing is going to come from. So far, everything I’ve worked on has been deeply connected to reality. I’m not constitutionally opposed to working on something completely fictional, either. It just happens that a lot of these stories have crossed my path in a way that makes them intriguing, but I’m up for anything that’s intellectually engaging. I think I’m a filmmaker. I don’t know exactly what kind. I’m still figuring that out.
Watch “Capturing the Friedmans” below: