Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans
  • Country of production: USA
  • Year: 2003
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Andrew Jarecki
  • Running time: 107 Minutes
  • Official website:

Capturing the Friedmans charts the real-life disintegration of a family, following the arrest of father Arnold and youngest son Jesse for sexually molesting young boys. Incredibly the disturbing story is told through actual video footage shot by family members themselves. Their predilection for goofing around in front of the camera, even as the crisis unfolded, makes it especially engrossing. It won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

The Friedmans were a seemingly respectable middle-class family living in Great Neck on Long Island, an affluent suburb of New York City. The day before Thanksgiving in 1987, as the family gathered at home for a quiet holiday dinner, their front door was shattered by a battering ram and police stormed the house while the media massed outside. Arnold, an award-winning music and computer teacher, had been caught weeks earlier in a sting operation, after ordering and distributing child pornography through the post.

The film covers the subsequent public hysteria, court cases and lingering aftermath. Fresh and shocking revelations are introduced throughout the film. The director conducts present-day interviews with many of the significant players, including the Friedmans, purported sexual victims and policemen. The Friedman home movies, dating back to Arnold’s childhood, continued in the months after the arrests. Footage shot in the family's darkest moments show that wife Elaine, who did not share the others' sense of frivolity, plainly did not believe that Arnold was innocent. The capturing of the Friedmans on-screen mirrors the way in which they were ensnared by the forces of law in real life.

The film illustrates the permeable line between fact and fantasy, not least in the eyes of the law. By presenting this material and offering no verdict, the film demands that the onlooker take a view. Yet there is no way of knowing the full truth.

This is writer-director Andrew Jarecki's first film. His career includes spells as a musician and as the founder and CEO of Moviefone, the cinema ticket service he sold to AOL in 1999. He stumbled across the story when making a short documentary about the eldest son David, aka Silly Billy, New York's most in-demand children's clown. Clowning in the face of tragedy is the Friedmans' story.


Capturing the Friedmans

Sex, Lies and Videotape

'The Friedman family's near pornographic obsession with home video suggests an onanistic existence in which the boundaries between performance and real life have simply ceased to exist.'


Arnold Friedman "liked looking at pictures" and "meditating", in the words of his wife Elaine, just like the lead character in Steven Soderbergh's 1989 breakthrough movie. And just as in that film there were gaps between what people said and did, and between what they felt and said they felt, in this film very different perspectives are offered and there is a fundamental ambiguity about almost everything.

Arnold's staged fooling around began with his time as 'Arnito Rey', the Latin musician. Within the family, a frenetic jokiness was cultivated with his sons, to the exclusion of their mother. 'What the camera finds in his wife's face is the grim grasp of barely sustained tolerance - she's an outsider in her own home, or rather, in the no-girls-allowed treehouse that she lives in' (Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times).

Lack of resolution

Critics generally praised director Jarecki's ability to structure the story without casting judgement. This enables him to show both that the viewer's first impressions cant necessarily be trusted, and also that in some cases truth is very much in the eye of the beholder, and so every individual's version of 'the truth' differs subtly. As Elaine said, when explaining her idealised image of her own father: "People's visions are distorted." Arguably, Elaine was the most detached member of the family yet still she "didn't see it. My eyes were in the right direction, but my brain saw nothing." David says he filmed Jesse's last night of freedom so he wouldn't remember the night - just the film of it.

For the viewer, the question of the film-makers' probity is raised. For Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times, it was a 'respectful glance inside the Friedman lives' that showed 'restraint and taste'.


However, one or two critics reacted against its 'naked and invasive form of voyeurism' (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times). Indeed, sifting through stills from the film for this magazine involved looking at family snapshots and felt intrusive, almost indecent, as if one was involuntarily drawn into participating, forced to play the same role as the director.

Turan believed the studied impartiality was a 'pose' as the director was unable to deal with the story's contradictions and simply avoided responsibility when things were too inscrutable. He asked whether, even if the Friedmans approved of their own exploitation, that would mean they were less taken advantage of. Does our curiosity justify making a spectacle of their lives? Turan quoted celebrated child psychologist Robert Coles, saying, 'It's a fine line, isn't it, between telling the truth and parading the truth?'

Because the footage is real and those filmed are unguarded, we get to know the characters from their actual behaviour. That said, to fit the restrictions of a feature film, some complexities - such as the fact that several of Jesse's friends were also indicted - had to be left out, Doug Pratt wrote in the Hollywood Reporter.

"This is private. If you're not me, then you really shouldn't be watching this."



The director manages to raise questions about Arnold and Jesse's guilt of the crimes with which they are charged, without insisting on their innocence, according to Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times. Jarecki and his collaborators 'maintain an unsentimental distance, training an unblinking, empathetic eye on their subjects' (Colin Brown, Screen International). Brown said the film doesn't recoil in horror from the monstrous crimes the Friedmans are accused of, nor at Arnold's admitted paedophilia; but neither does the director engineer any undue sympathies for the family. What he doesn't say, however, is that our privileged access should enable us to understand why Jesse was accused and why he pleaded guilty, but these remain unclear.

The viewers also get to examine the role of the police and their handling of the case. If nothing else, the movie serves as the 'fair' trial that was not available at the time, or at any rate seemingly not to Jesse Friedman. One senses it was the police's unfavourable perception of this rather unconventional family - starting with the discovery of Arnold's pornography and culminating in the boys' playacting on the court steps - that inspired and fuelled the legal action.

Leigh Singer in Hotdog went so far as to say 'you couldn't make it up - unless, it seems, you're the police'. There was no physical evidence presented of abuse, despite the violence of the charges. The police tactics differed from those of the film-makers in that videos cited as evidence did not in fact exist and witnesses had to be coerced. The police's method for creating the desired impressions in people's minds was hypnosis, rather than film-making.

It is notable that the Friedmans' trial was the first time cameras were allowed inside the Nassau County court room. Unlike the impression the film leaves you with, "there was never a doubt in my mind as to their guilt," declared Abbey Boklan, the judge in both cases.

The movie continually adds extra pieces to the jigsaw. It is typical that the viewer is forced to participate in questioning whether it is relevant and fitting, or just a sad paradox, that David now makes a living fooling around in front of children as a clown. It is apt that it is David who should be shown with Fruit of the Loom underwear over his eyes to avoid being filmed at the time of his father's arrest. And who was responsible for the jokey epitaph "beach bum" on Arnold's grave, given his confessions about sex with young boys while on holiday at a beach resort?

The surprises keep coming, constantly unravelling previous perceptions. In the film's most poignant moment, right at the end of the film, Elaine allows herself to be filmed and seems to join in the clowning, as if to say that our previous view of her as unimpeachably sensible was misleading and nothing in the film is to be trusted. She jokingly opens and closes the door on her son and a voice behind the camera chimes: "Smile! Look at me!".

So many perspectives are offered and they are so cleverly constructed that it is even possible to imagine the whole scenario having been made up. One can believe that we will be presented with more such home video concoctions in the future.


Capturing the Friedmans


Capturing the Friedmans

This film can be seen at the following cinemas that provide Film Eye to their customers. Please note this does not guarantee that Film Eye will be available at the time of your visit. Please refer to the SUBSCRIBE page of this website for how to obtain Film Eye direct from the publishers.

Please contact cinemas for screening dates and times.


Capturing the FriedmansCapturing the FriedmansCapturing the FriedmansCapturing the FriedmansCapturing the FriedmansCapturing the Friedmans

Click image to enlarge