Capturing the Friedmans

dir: Andrew Jarecki
[img_assist|nid=999|title=Playing happy families|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=350|height=544]
And I thought I came from a fucked up family…

What is true in life is rarely shown with such clarity in films: sometimes in the pursuit of ‘truth’, the more information we are given, the more sides we try to understand regarding a conflict, the more elusive that ‘truth’ becomes. No example is as representative of that essential conundrum as this film by Andrew Jarecki, who has managed to make a compelling and disturbing documentary on his maiden voyage.
I know, using the words “compelling and disturbing” about documentaries is about as usually appropriate as saying “intelligent and life affirming” about a film with Adam Sandler or Melanie Griffith in it, but at least in this case it is appropriate, or at least accurate as far as I’m concerned.

Cutting through the meat of the story to its bare bones: a father and son are accused of abusing some kids in a quiet, bourgeois suburb called Great Neck, in New York. There is much conjecture as to whether the people concerned were guilty of the horrific array of crimes they were alleged to have committed. This film gives us pause, as viewers, forcing us to question that which we’re shown on a continual basis. At least, for those of us who find the story and the way in which it is told interesting. Someone bored by it would probably find it excruciatingly dull, but that certainly doesn’t apply to yours truly.

It’s not a question of who’s telling the truth, because there are ample reasons to disbelieve any of the people in the film. It’s not that they lack credibility, it’s not that they’re pathological liars, it’s just that everyone has ample reasons to put forward their version of what may or may not have happened. It’s just that something like this, a sequence of trials like this, a family like this, it doesn’t allow for complete understanding. The more we see and hear the greater the muddle becomes.

Let’s face it, if it had been something as ‘commonplace’ as a murder then people would barely have batted an eyelid (except of course for the people directly affected by it), and it’s unlikely a film would have been made about it. But the spectre of child abuse, specifically sexual child abuse brings out the horror, the murderous rage in people. We are, at least in contemporary life comparatively blasé about murder, I’m ashamed to say. I’m not talking about the violent deaths that affect us directly, I mean in general. We see so many each day both in the news and in fiction. We’re inured to it. But the abuse of a child, well, it’s understandable that the people involved and the communities they live in go completely ballistic. There’s something inherently hysterical about our reactions, but I’ve heard of arguments that say perhaps we have an instinctive predisposition to finding the death or sexual abuse of children the most abhorrent of crimes. Think about it, we are social animals, and our children come into this world absolutely helpless.

Since we generally (except for Catholics and poor people without access to birth control or televisions) don’t breed in great numbers, each individual child (compared to animals that have litters, or further down the evolutionary scale, organisms that release hundreds or thousands of eggs in the hope that at least a bunch survive) is precious and crucial, comparatively. Without the instinctual adaptation in primates that each individual child has to be protected completely and utterly until adulthood, both from physical and sexual harm, would any of the primate species have survived? I’m not talking solely from a personal, emotional point of view, I’m talking about where the evolutionary adaptation came about which is expressed culturally (phenotypically) as we see here. I don’t know enough about genetics or even how car engines work to be able to offer a considered opinion, but it’s a theory that interests me all the same.

For it is, it truly is the worst of crimes. You know it, we all know it. As a detective from the Sex Crimes unit involved in the case tellingly states during the film, you have to be absolutely sure and super careful when you accuse someone of something like this, because the accusation alone will ruin their life regardless of their guilt or innocence. Well, it’s funny you should mention that…

We all feel a terrible sickness whenever the topic is brought up. It makes us angry. It makes us feel like lighting torches, getting pitchforks, mobilising into an angry mob, and lynching the persons responsible, because as we all know, there’s no justice like angry mob justice. That impulse (the desire to protect children and punish severely those bastards that would harm them) comes from a good place, but it becomes something terrifying and ugly. If the accusation alone is enough to drive us mad with rage, then we have to believe that cold, sober, blind Justice (as in the ‘divine’ conception of it) can separate the facts from the fiction and come to the truth, getting justice for the victims and retribution against the criminal.

But people aren’t as objective and dispassionate as the statues out the front of courtrooms. Before a person ever gets to the courtroom steps, if the case is controversial enough, the case has been settled in the public’s mind months or even years before in the media.

Let’s look at the facts, which are artfully arrayed in a manner throughout the movie to most provocative effect, doled out to us only when the maker believes it to be most effective: Arnold Friedman is a celebrated teacher, and wonderfully middle class family man with a nice house, a loving wife and three wonderful boys. They live in the wonderfully middle class suburb of Great Neck, which looks like a fucking thrilling place to live if you’re a quadriplegic, maybe.

Arnie really is a very well-respected teacher, having won multiple “Teacher of the Year” awards, loved by everyone, even if he a complete super nerd. One day he decides to send away for a book from the Netherlands, probably from the back of some less than reputable magazines. Probably the kind that people don’t even pretend they get for the articles. This is all occurring in the mid to late 80s, so be prepared for some atrocious hairstyles and worse clothing choices. There is no shortage of footage dealing with the time period, which is something I’ll get to later.

The States, having sensible customs laws, has a Customs service that looks out for this specific type of thing from getting into the country. The package, on its way from the Netherlands to Arnie’s hot little hand, is opened, examined, and then starts a ball rolling which ends up destroying multiple people’s lives. All over one little package.

Of course what matters is what was in the package. It was, for lack of an equivalent euphemism, porn with representations of sex with children. The package never gets to Arnie, and through a pretty elaborate sting, the Feds get Arnie to send them some of his own private stash in order to bust him for possessing the stuff, which they send back to him in order to make it stick in court, or so you’d think.

Upon getting into the Friedman home, with a warrant to search for more horrible material, the cops find that the basement of the house is set up like a classroom. They find out that Arnie, along with giving local kids piano lessons, also gives computer classes, which families would ‘enrol’ their kids in, presumably to help them get ahead in school.

Well, to the investigators this is the equivalent of going over to your best friend’s house and finding several pairs of your girlfriend’s panties all over the living room. They knew. Deep down, they knew what had happened, without a shadow of a doubt. Despite the fact that at this stage, not one single child or parent had gone to the police or complained, they were convinced that the mass abuse of kids had gone on. So the Sex Crimes unit goes about its business constructing a case with which to send away Arnie forever and ever amen. Also, in the process of the investigation, they go after his youngest son Jesse as well.

They can’t be criticised for their zeal, can they? Surely in the same position any of us would have done everything we could have to nail the bastards. And since we knew he was guilty, without a doubt, was there anything wrong with perhaps ‘guiding’ some of the witnesses into giving statements that perhaps didn’t entirely coincide with what actually happened?

That is pretty much the crux of the issue here, at least from the point of view of the audience: if, and I repeat, IF the cops did fabricate evidence and railroaded Friedman senior and Friedman junior, how bad are we going to feel about it? Arnold Friedman, by his own admission later on in the film, at least through correspondence with a journalist and advocate against this type of community hysteria, admits to a history of paedophilic tendencies. So, in a certain light you could come to the conclusion that despite the fact that the case against Arnold is outlandishly and obviously fabricated, he’s clearly guilty of something. And it’s not as if anyone is going to feel moral outrage over the corrupt incarceration of a paedophile, are they?

But if it’s true, then it still constitutes a horrific miscarriage of justice, regardless of whether we feel the defendant ‘deserved’ it or not. You get the feeling that the cops were so horrified at the idea of this man having access to kids through teaching, and in giving special classes in the basement, that releasing him into the wild seemed like a terribly negligent thing to do. Did they feel it was their moral obligation to ‘fix’ things? Was it the ‘greater good’ they were aiming for?

Who knows? I certainly don’t. It’s not as if the cops involved are ever going to admit to impropriety. Although one interesting statement is made where one of the cops claims that particular parents were acting so bizarrely competitive that when one family would claim their child had been molested 5 times, the other family would say that theirs had been molested 6 times! Mention is made of the intersection of this community hysteria and this culture of victimisation, where potentially families were banding together or excluding others based on whether they were playing along or not. After all this isn’t the first case of its type that has ever occurred, the McMartin Preschool case, which was both around the same time and had an equivalent level of insane hysteria represented this as well.

This kind of stuff is just unbelievable. Furthermore, the director supplies us with interviews with a parent of one of the kids who took classes, a guy who claims he was one of the kids abused, and another guy who was in the computer classes and saw nothing. The father and the guy alleging molestation both appear with their faces in shadow. The guy claiming that something happened, apart from acting like a Class A freak, reveals himself to have no credibility. He also admits that he never even ‘knew’ he’d been molested until he’d been placed under hypnosis. He also contradicts himself several times, not even requiring anyone else’s interjection to show himself to be somewhat less than trustworthy.

The father of one of the kids implies that the police pressured the kids and the parents by asking leading questions, and telling kids “We know this happened, admit that this and this happened” rather than “So, little Timmy, tell us what happened” Not being an overly naïve person, I don’t know how much credence to give this, because I can’t see the guy’s face, don’t know who he is and don’t know what he has to gain or lose by giving his own spin on events.

A detective (Dobbman) is intercut into this section (who wasn’t directly involved in the case), who stresses the importance of interviewing children properly, because of the child-like propensity to want to placate authority figures, the desire to get out of a scary situation (questioning itself) by saying whatever the questioner wants to hear, and other pitfalls.

The third guy appears more credible and believable. All that he can clearly state, of course, is whether anything happened to him (emphatically not) or whether he ever saw anything like what was alleged to have happened (emphatically not). Of course, that doesn’t tell us what may have occurred to other kids when he wasn’t around. But the guy’s got nothing to gain, no lies from the past to hide, no book to promote that we know of.

There is of course the possibility of the sin of omission. There are no interviews with the parents of kids that said they were abused. I don’t know if Jarecki wasn’t able to convince any of them to appear on camera, or whether he simply didn’t bother. You are given no clues why from the doco itself. It’s interesting because of its absence.

Eventually, since it follows a somewhat linear chronology, the closer that Arnold is getting to trial, the more that the cracks widen in the façade that is his happy family prior to its inevitable falling apart. His wife Elaine is so mortified by the allegations, by their ostracism from the community, from her own emotional issues, and ultimately her resentment of the close relationship between Arnie and his three sons, that she has no support to give them. She gets a significant amount of screen time talking about her recollections of the era, and her difficulties with dealing with the circumstances. Many people I’ve spoken to feel that Elaine comes out of this looking like a vicious harpy, but I don’t agree. I can understand how betrayed she might have felt, and how envious she was of the bond between the brothers themselves and with their father. This is how excluded people feel, also those that are now being spat on in public because of something they themselves never did.

Along with relatively contemporary footage shot by Jarecki, there is a wealth of footage taken from the Friedman’s own home movies. Though we expect it to be commonplace now that many people seem to want to capture every single mundane moment of their lives on video or through a webcam, it seems strange to us that they filmed themselves so comprehensively both before the shit hit the fan, and especially after.

The initial stuff reveals a relatively ‘normal’ family interacting goofily and hamming it up for the cameras. Clearly Arnie is a ham straight out of vaudeville, and his three sons are constantly performing like nuts whenever the camera is on. When the accusations start to fly, when they have become pariahs, the filming continues, though you can see Arnie becoming a broken man, the wife as resigned to her fate and resentful of her family, and the three sons desperately, histrionically in denial. Except for Seth, of course, who has nothing to do with the film and spends much of the time behind the camera in the old footage. It is quite strange to be privy to their private moments under the pressure of these circumstances. It doesn’t make us voyeuristic, since it’s not like we’re watching the umpteenth brain-dead reality program or episode of Springer to watch people humiliate themselves in front of a national audience, we are watching people film themselves at the worst point in their lives. Why did they tape this stuff? Why did they have the inclination to capture these moments in their lives? For posterity? As proof? Of what? The sons keep badgering the father and Jesse with the question “did you do it?” as if denying it on camera will somehow vindicate them. It’s fascinating from a psychological point of view.

The father, Arnie, eventually pleads guilty and is sent away. If we thought the film was murky before, it just gets more confusing now. Advised by his lawyers that going to trial would be a disaster, due to the sheer magnitude of the case stacked against him, despite the fact that there is no physical evidence, he pleads guilty. Also, apparently he is strongly urged to do so by his wife, who just wants it over with. For some reason that I can’t quite fathom, Arnie comes to believe that pleading guilty is somehow going to protect Jesse from prosecution, despite the fact that even a first year law student knows the converse of that is more likely to be true.

Enter the lawyer. Much maligned as they are both as people and as a profession, the lawyer Peter Panaro comes off at best incompetent, and at worst as a liar covering his own pock-marked, probably hairy arse. He claims Jesse confessed to him, that Arnie broadly proclaimed his tendencies in three sequences that seem highly dubious, and that Jesse wanted to plead guilty anyway. There isn’t evidence to the contrary, but in a context of Jesse’s word against Panaro’s, who are we meant to believe? I can’t come to solid conclusions from anything shown in this doco, which is simultaneously what makes it so powerful and so frustrating.

The night before Jesse gets sentenced, the three brothers stay up all night, joking, laughing, doing endless amounts of shtick, always mindful of what’s coming. There’s gallows humour, but mostly just the interactions of three close brothers. It is as surreal for us to watch it as it must have been for them to film it.

Life goes on. The story, unlike Arnold Friedman’s life, doesn’t end. Even broken people can move on eventually. We’re given the impression that Seth Friedman, who plays no part in the film, moves away and tries to put it completely behind him. David, still in denial about his father, mopes through life trying to still get hired as a clown for kiddies parties, though I suspect the amount of work he gets subsequent to the release of the film dwindles to nothing. Jesse fights for justice still, after spending 13 years in jail. Elaine has moved on, and remarried, hopefully to a guy who isn’t harbouring similarly terrible secrets.

There are questions that the film doesn’t try to answer, probably because it can’t. What are we to make of Detective Frances Galasso’s statements regarding the mountains and mountains of illegal material she claims she saw stacked floor to ceiling in plain view, which no other police photos from the scene represent? How could Elaine not know about her husband’s tendencies after so many years of marriage? Despite the hundreds and hundreds of alleged instances of abuse, why was there not a single scrap of physical evidence? Why had no children ever complained to their parents, and kept being re-enrolled for further classes even after countless occasions of abuse are alleged to have occurred? This kind of abuse would do terrible damage to a child’s body and soul, yet no-one said anything? Saw anything? Why Jesse? If Jesse is completely innocent, then why did the cops focus on him and not the other brothers? Did they pick him arbitrarily? If Jesse’s admission of guilt was solely to reduce his sentence, why did he also go onto that beacon of truth The Geraldo Show claiming to have been a victim of Arnie’s abuse and to have abused kids himself? If Arnie never fiddled with the poor kiddies in his basement, are we supposed to believe that his motives in even setting up such an educational ‘scheme’ were entirely pure as the driven snow? I find that… hard to believe.

One last question that springs to mind is: did Jarecki deliberately leave out the fact that Arnie’s brother Howard, who defends his brother to the hilt yet still speak of Arnie’s tremendous burden of guilt, was gay until the end of the film because he thought it would skew our perception at all?

And we are left still scratching our heads at film’s end. As each day passes different factors present themselves to me in different lights thus changing my stance on what may or may not have happened. And in an era where directors and producers are happy to spoon-feed audiences as if they’re senile, incontinent idiots, we need docos that allow us to make up our own minds, even if in the end we can’t. Well made, well crafted, mindful of giving enough people a voice, without overwhelming us with manipulative or contrived false sentiment, all of which apply here.

Which is why this is a superb documentary.

9 questionable decisions to let strange people take care of your kids out of 10