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Andrew Jarecki
Arnold Friedman, Elaine Friedman, David Friedman, Seth Friedman, Jesse Friedman, Howard Friedman

Who Do You Believe?

Capturing the Friedmans, the most riveting, critically-acclaimed, and hotly debated film of the year explores the elusive nature of truth through the prism of one of the strangest criminal cases in American history.

Despite their tendency to ham it up in front of home-movie cameras, the Friedmans are a seemingly normal middle-class family living in the affluent New York suburb of Great Neck. One Thanksgiving, as the family gathers at home for a quiet holiday dinner, their front door explodes, splintered by a police battering ram. Officers rush into the house, accusing Arnold Friendman and his youngest son Jesse of hundreds of shocking crimes. The film follows their story from the public's perspective and through unique real footage of the family in crisis, shot inside of the Friedman house. As the police investigate, and the community reacts, the fabric of the family beginsito disintegrate, revealing provocative questions about justice, family, and ultimately, truth.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$65.154 thousand on 3 screens.
Domestic Gross
$3.117 million.

Rated NR

Widescreen 1.78:1/16x9
English Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 107 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 1/27/2004

Disc One
• Audio Commentary with Director Andrew Jarecki and Editor/Co-producer Richard Hankin
• Trailer
Disc Two
• “Altercation at the New York Premiere” Footage
• “The Judge Speaks Out at the Great Neck Premiere” Footage
• “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions” Featurette
• “Charlie Rose Interviews Director Andrew Jarecki”
• Unseen Home Movies
• “The Case” Featurettes
• “The Family” Featurettes
• Audio Scrapbook
• “The Score” Featurette
• DVD-ROM Materials

• Booklet

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Capturing The Friedmans (2003)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 12, 2004)

Few issues provoke absolute condemnation more than child sexual abuse. Even the scummiest murderers in prison look down on child molesters, and it exists as one of the biggest fears experienced by parents. As one who works with kids for a living, I worry about what would happen if a student falsely claimed such behavior against me. Capturing the Friedmans looks at a case of possible abuse and examines how it tears apart a family in the face of uncertain evidence.

The film focuses on the Friedmans, a family in Great Neck, New York. The clan includes father Arnold, mother Elaine, and sons David, Seth and Jesse. In 1984, postal investigators caught Arnold as he attempted to receive a magazine that fell into the category of child pornography. When the police searched the house, they discovered more of that sort of material and began a greater investigation. Arnold tutored kids on computers, and the cops suspect that he abused them. Eventually they implicate Jesse in these activities as well, and the film follows the case.

Friedmans presents the material via a mix of sources. Much of the information comes from new interviews with involved parties. In the Friedman family, we hear from Elaine, Jesse and David; Arnold died in 1995, while Seth declined to participate. In addition, we find comments from postal inspector John McDermott, Sex Crimes Unit Detective (Retired) Frances Galasso, Sex Crimes Unit Detectives Anthony Sgueglia and Lloyd Doppman, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Onorato, Jesse’s high school friend Judd Maltin, Arnold’s brother Howard, Howard’s partner Jack Fallin, former computer student Ron Georgalis, judge’s legal secretary Scott Banks, Judge Abbey Boklan, Arnold’s attorney Jerry Bernstein, Jesse’s attorney Peter Panaro, and investigative journalist Debbie Nathan. We also hear from some unidentified former computer students as well as unnamed parents of some students.

In addition to the interviews, we get lots of material shot in the Eighties. Most of this comes from Friedman family home video; David taped an awful lot of what happened, and we even see his own video diary from 1988. We also find older home movies, audio recordings made by David, and TV news footage.

A very deft and well-balanced piece, Friedmans indeed captures its subject in a remarkable way. Much of the success of the piece comes from the sense of reality lent by the family’s video footage. David demonstrated an almost pathological need to shoot everything that happened, and the film benefits from this. We don’t just hear about the family’s disintegration; we see it happen right before our eyes.

The filmmakers let the piece unfold at a fairly leisurely pace, but it never feels slow. Instead, they build the story gradually. It’s a cliché, but it does resemble the peeling of an onion, as additional layers become evident piece by piece. Despite the shocking nature of much of the news, these revelations never come across as gratuitous, and the filmmakers don’t present them in a way that escalates their outrageousness. Instead, they come out simply as another part of the puzzle.

Exceedingly objective, Friedmans never takes sides. As a viewer, I constantly debated where I felt the truth resided, for the movie didn’t make it easy on me. One minute you hear something that makes you believe one side, but then a few minutes later, some new information leads you away from that belief.

The fact that Friedmans really includes two different cases complicates matters. Except perhaps David – who remains unwaveringly loyal to his father, who he continues to glorify despite the facts - no one really disputes that Arnold was a pretty sick puppy; there’s no question that he enjoyed child pornography. However, this doesn’t necessarily implicate him as a child abuser, so the film details the areas that lean for and against his guilt. In addition, we find the complication of Jesse’s purported involvement, which becomes an issue totally separate from Arnold’s tale.

The Arnold story dominates Friedmans, but the film balances the pair well. One can’t consider them as separate tales, for they’re clearly intertwined in many ways. They don’t start to split more concisely until the final act of the flick. This occurs in a natural manner that feels well depicted.

Sometimes painful to watch, Capturing the Friedmans always remains fascinating. The documentary looks at a controversial child abuse case and investigates the tale with candor and precision. It lacks any apparent agenda of its own and provides a simply outstanding and provocative piece.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio C+/ Bonus B+

Capturing the Friedmans appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though it displayed some issues, given the film’s genre and budget, it offered a pretty solid picture.

I didn’t factor the home movies, TV footage, and other material not shot explicitly for Capturing into my grade. Those elements demonstrated all sorts of flaws, but it didn’t seem fair to criticize the DVD for problems with that kind of stuff. As for the new shots, they presented excellent sharpness. The new elements consistently looked crisp and detailed, and they betrayed no signs of softness. Those bits portrayed no problems with jagged edges or shimmering, but a little edge enhancement cropped up at times. As for source flaws, the images looked a little grainy, and they also showed occasional examples of speckles.

Not surprisingly, the DVD’s palette tended toward natural tones. The movie’s hues came across with positive clarity and definition. The colors always looked vivid and concise, and I noticed no problems with them at any times. Blacks also seemed deep and firm, while the occasional low-light shots appeared well defined and clean. Overall, the mix of minor concerns knocked down my grade to a “B”, but I found the image to seem satisfying for this sort of flick.

As one might expect from this sort of movie, Capturing the Friedmans presented a pretty modest Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack. The soundfield stayed largely monaural. Speech dominated the program and mostly stayed well focused in the center speaker. A few snippets spread the speech awkwardly to the sides as well, but those were significantly in the minority. The occasional examples of music and effects blended decently to the sides. These played a small role in the proceedings. The surrounds echoed those elements in a minor way and didn’t add much to the mix.

Audio quality was solid. Speech consistently sounded natural and crisp, with no problems related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects seemed accurate, though they were so modest that they never taxed the mix in any way. Music also sounded warm and dynamic, as the occasional bits of score were full and broad. The soundfield of Capturing the Friedmans seemed too limited to merit more than a “C+”, but the audio was more than satisfactory for this sort of project.

For this two-DVD release of Capturing the Friedmans, we get a wide array of supplements. On the first disc, we find the film’s theatrical trailer as well as an audio commentary from director Andrew Jarecki and editor/co-producer Richard Hankin. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific track. They cover subjects such as the unlikely origins of the film as a piece about party clowns, editing and structural choices, additional facts behind the scenes, properties of the interviews and working with the participants. We get some insight into the various personalities and a little of the filmmakers’ own impressions. The commentary drags at times and suffers from too many dead spots, but it generally adds some depth to our understanding of the film, so it merits a listen.

Now we head to DVD Two and its surfeit of supplements. These break into a mix of subdomains, and we start with “The Discussion”. This includes An Altercation at the New York Premiere, a nine-minute and 20-second piece. We see a few folks as they arrive at the screening and then get some elements of a post-movie Q&A. The cops seen in the flick chat about some elements that didn’t make the movie, which adds some interesting information. This leads to a conversation between Detectives Doppler and Galasso and investigative reporter Debbie Nathan about the case, as she questions the police techniques and their memories. David Friedman also chimes in with his side of things about Jesse’s TV interview with Geraldo Rivera, which provokes attorney Peter Panaro. A few other topics arise in this pretty interesting chat that involves the involved parties. “Altercation” seems like a strong term for this fairly low-key chat – I expected some serious shrieking and bitch-slapping – but it nonetheless brings up some useful material.

More of the same kind of information appears in The Judge Speaks Out at the Great Neck Premiere, a six-minute and 15-second featurette. She expresses her thoughts on the movie and the case, which actually does provoke a minor altercation; an unnamed audience member “who loves Jesse” tries to stop her from talking. She eventually goes over some issues, and the filmmakers also address them. We also hear from an older man who discusses his experiences as an adult student of Arnold’s, as he stands up for the elder Friedman. It’s not quite as informative as the prior featurette, but it includes more decent data.

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions goes over six topics and splits into short snippets for each. These come from audience questions after screenings; all told, the six last a total of six minutes, 21 seconds of footage. Some of the information seems a bit banal, but we get a good examination of the current relationships in the family as well as why Seth declined to participate in the project.

Finally, Charlie Rose Interviews Director Andrew Jarecki. In this 19-minute and 15-second program, Jarecki discusses the origins of the project, his opinions of the Friedmans, the film’s use of home videos, issues related to the subject matter and difficulties making a flick related to pedophilia, and how the movie affected his life. Jarecki also chats about his thoughts about the case in general. We hear a fair amount of this information elsewhere, but it nonetheless presents a reasonably efficient look at the material.

The next domain presents “Unseen Home Movies” and splits into three topics. We watch Passover Seder (two minutes, 14 seconds), Grandma Speaks (27 seconds), and Jesse’s Last Night (three minutes, 17 seconds). None of this footage seems revelatory, but it opens up some of the subjects; the “Last Night” material seems especially interesting.

After this we move to “The Case” and its additional four subtopics. Essentially these act as deleted scenes, as they present clips that would have fit cleanly with the final product. The Investigation runs eight minutes and 17 seconds and presents comments from Joseph Onorato, Jesse Friedman, Debbie Nathan, Frances Galasso, Anthony Sgueglia, Lloyd Doppman, Peter Panaro, and some unnamed parents of students. It offers elements of the police case including the photos they took in the Friedman house as well as the questioning of the students. It definitely casts doubt on the objectivity of the police methods, especially when we hear from the transcript of an interview surreptitiously taped by a student’s parent; this showed some of the unscrupulous ways.

Additional Suspects gets into three others the police allege were involved with the Friedmans. In this seven-minute and 17-second featurette, we get notes from Nathan, Onorato, Galasso, Panaro, Elaine Friedman, Jesse Friedman, and an anonymous alleged participant. We learn of Ross Goldstein’s implication in the case as well as unnamed other suspects as Galasso talks of the police belief that there was a large sex ring involved. A very interesting piece, it adds depth to the project and also makes the police look pretty bad.

For a look at the community reaction to the case, we move to Great Neck Outraged. We find comments from Onorato, Elaine Friedman, Galasso, Judd Maltin, Peter Panaro and an unnamed additional suspect. In this three-minute and 53-second piece, we find out how involved locals got in the events and how that investigated the investigation and case. This program adds to the feeling of a witch-hunt and offers some intriguing notes.

Lastly, A Principal Witness for the Prosecution presents three minutes and 32 seconds worth of comments from the unnamed former student and alleged victim who painted such a damning picture of the Friedmans in the main film. Here he pours more fuel on the fire with additional – and inconsistent – graphic details of the abuse he claims Arnold and Jesse enacted on him. The more I hear this guy, the less I believe him.

In “The Family”, we get notes about each member of the Friedmans. (Actually, that’s not totally true; the “Seth” area just indicates that he didn’t want to participate in the project.) We start with Arnold and three smaller sections. “Arnie’s Party” offers a three-minute and 40-second videotape shot at Arnold’s retirement party. “Anatomy of a Pedophile” indicates that after Arnold got sent to jail, he retracted his earlier confession. This 66-second piece presents his letter to Peter Panaro; the attorney reads this text in this interesting clip that seems to defend pedophilia. “Arnold’s Last Letter from Prison” comes from his brother Howard. He discusses the missive at the start of this 62-second snippet, and we then hear the full letter.

Next we move to Elaine and an additional three subdomains. “The Newlyweds” lasts two minutes, 47 seconds and shows home movies of their honeymoon. We hear about her attempt to take her own life in “Elaine Overwhelmed”. The two-minute and 33-second snippet includes interviews from David and Elaine as we learn about this startling secret. David’s genuine hatred of his mother seems even more shocking; he actually implies that he wishes she’d died in this attempt! Finally, “Elaine Arrested” fills 110 seconds and looks at Mrs. Friedman’s lack of cooperation with the early parts of the investigation. We get comments from Detective Galasso, Elaine, and Assistant DA Onorato in this moderately interesting piece.

Another three elements pop up in the Jesse domain. “Jesse’s First Days Out of Prison (By David)” runs four minutes, 25 seconds as it shows the youngest Friedman’s reactions to his return to society. This opens up the subject and gives us a short but succinct look at the topic. “Jesse’s Life Today” continues that theme with a six-minute piece. Set 22 months after his release from prison, we find out when he’s up to now. Lastly, “Jesse Looks Back” in a five-minute and 45-second program. He goes over some of his earlier decisions and other issues like his appearance with Geraldo Rivera. It’s a useful program that adds some depth to the package.

For the last family member, we get one piece in the David domain. This presents the 20-minute and 10-second “Just a Clown”, the short film on which director Jarecki toiled when he discovered the Friedman story. It’s a pretty good look at a bizarre world; these clowns may well be the most annoying people on the planet. Still, I’m dying to know how a bitter, fat and balding schlub like David got into the sack with this gorgeous woman Cinda.

The last part of “The Family” offers an audio scrapbook. It divides into smaller domains for Arnold, Elaine, Jesse, David, “the boys”, “the family”, and “the house”. These show family photos and include soundbites. All of the latter seem to come straight from the film, which makes this an odd piece that appears mildly interesting just because of the photos. I think all of those also show up in the movie, but this format makes them more accessible.

Inside “The Score” we find one component: a seven-minute and 19-second featurette called Recording the score in Rome with Composer Andrea Morricone. He discusses how he became involved in Friedmans. We also get some notes from Jarecki and Hankin as they go to the recording session and we watch parts of those periods. In addition, Morricone chats about how he got into music and the influence of his famous father Ennio as well as his approach to the score for Friedmans. This seems like a moderately informative program but not anything terribly rich.

Folks with DVD-ROM drives can check out even more materials. This promises “key documents from the family and the case” plus other elements like recordings from Arnold’s mambo days as Arnito Rey. Unfortunately, my DVD-ROM drive’s causing me trouble, so I couldn’t check out these features.

Finally, the DVD’s booklet includes a few text materials. We a detailed listing of all the set’s supplements as well as an essay from critic David Denby. Unsurprisingly, he praises the film, but he adds some good notes about it as well.

As I write this, we have less than three weeks to the Oscars, and I know what film I hope will win for Best Documentary – Feature. Capturing the Friedmans provides a consistently riveting and well-told account that truly doesn’t take sides. It explores a fascinating case in detail and gives us a nice look at the story. The DVD presents decent picture and audio that replicate the source material well, and the package’s many extras expand the material to a fine degree. I definitely recommend this excellent documentary and solid DVD.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4615 Stars Number of Votes: 26
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