When I met with Andrew Jarecki, director of the disturbing new documentary, "Capturing the Friedmans," I was prepared to ask him dozens of questions about the Jewish aspects of the film: Does it make the Jewish community look bad? How does it relate to the community today? How does his own New York Jewish upbringing relate to the subjects of the film? After all, this film about pedophilia concerns a suburban Jewish family living in the very Jewish suburb of Great Neck, Long Island.
But first, I desperately needed to ask Jarecki one question:
Did they do it?
Did Arnold Friedman and his youngest son, Jesse, repeatedly harass, molest and sodomize some of the elementary school boys taking an after-school computer club at their house, or were they targets of an overzealous police force on a witch hunt in suburbia?
In 1987 (around the same time that Jarecki started what was to become the ubiquitous MovieFone), Nassau County police arrested Arnold and Jesse on dozens of charges of sexual crimes against children. The manicured hamlet came under a Clintonian-like media scrutiny and righteously turned on the Friedman family.
But what makes this story different from, say, other prominent cases of pedophilia, is that the Friedmans themselves were intense documentarians: Throughout their lives, they shot stilted home movies of birthdays, holidays like Passover and Chanukah and kiddie pool parties. The filming didn’t end after the arrest, though. The camera remained on while the accusations unraveled their lives.
Surprisingly, that is what is most disturbing about the film; not the sexual nature of the case, but the dissolution of the family: The nagging Jewish mother, unsupportive of her nerdy Jewish husband who meekly faces her withering words; the children — David, Seth and Jesse — forced to stick up for their overprotective father; the Stepford-like Jewish community that prides itself on upward mobility and sends its post-Hebrew school children to computer classes at the Friedmans. Yes, it’s your typical dysfunctional Jewish family — smiling in bar mitzvah pictures, fighting at the seder table — until the FBI knocks on the door, and the Friedmans end up tearing one other apart like hungry locusts. More than the accusations, the real horror of the story is the drama of a recognizably bitter family falling apart.
Which is why this documentary — winner of the Grand Jury Documentary Prize at Sundance this year — has struck such a chord with audiences, even in its opening week. In New York and Great Neck, the heated Q-and-A sessions (which will also take place in Los Angeles) "sort of give [the audience] permission to be a little more emotional about it," Jarecki said, attributing that response to the fact that most documentaries present two sides of a story and "whoever is more credible" the audience sides with.
"Because there were home videos, the audience becomes a primary source — you get a chance to decide for yourself," he said. "The film charges the audience as a judge might a jury."
Yet even with the home movies, three years’ worth of interviews — with the family, police, prosecutors, judge, neighbors, accusers — you don’t know. Did they do it?
What did Jarecki think?
"I try not to behave [as] if I were there," he said, dodging the question. "I think the issue is so much more complicated than the case because there were two people involved: Arnold and his son. Some people say, ‘I don’t know if I believe them. I don’t know if they’re guilty or innocent.’ And the only thing I was trying to make people do is to separate these two people in their minds, because, you know, who among us wants to be judged by the same criterion as our parents?"
Jarecki himself stumbled into this saga with different intentions. After he and his partners sold MovieFone to AOL for $388 million in stock options in 1999, he decided to make a nice little documentary about children’s birthday party entertainers, following one Manhattanite clown named David Friedman. But when Friedman took Jarecki into his childhood home in Great Neck, Long Island, Jarecki unlocked the secret to this sad clown.
That’s how Jarecki’s life unfolds: When he can’t get through on the telephone to a movie theater back in 1988, he decides to start MovieFone. When he wants to make a sweet documentary, he stumbles onto one of the most sensational stories a filmmaker could hope to find.
"I’m very lucky. Strange things happen to me," said the filmmaker, who is as engaging as his film. Wearing jeans and a dark blue long-sleeved T-shirt, a green-and-blue beaded bracelet peeking through, the 40-year-old looks ever the causal dot-com millionaire cum artiste, and he casually accepts his fortuitous life (now taking place in Rome, with his wife and three sons).
"The only thing I really credit myself with is being willing to let it develop," he said.
And if you feel like the wool is being pulled over your eyes on this roller coaster of a tale, Jarecki said it’s only because he’s trying to present the information as he himself discovered it: onion layers of contradictions impeccably interwoven to create a heartbreaking story that you’ll have to just see for yourself.