Capturing the Friedmans (documentary)

Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans” exhibits a far better skill for storytelling than most documentaries do, masterfully weaving all the facts into the picture one by one until a complete, harrowing image has emerged. It is more intriguing than a lot of fiction, and told in a more compelling manner than most film stories.

The Friedmans — Arnold and Elaine, with sons Jesse, David and Seth — were a typical Jewish family in Great Neck, N.Y., in the 1980s. Arnie, a loosey-goosey man with a corny sense of humor, had been everyone’s favorite school teacher; now he was retired and taught computer classes in his basement to neighborhood children. Elaine was cold and distant, but a good mother. The boys were happy and well-adjusted.

Then came allegations from the computer students that Arnie and his eldest son Jesse had sexually abused them, dozens of them, dozens of times. Arnie was found to be in possession of child pornography and he confessed to some smaller crimes. Jesse confessed to nothing. The family, needless to say, was torn apart.

What is most extraordinary about the film is Jarecki’s access to family photos and home movies. The Friedmans loved documenting themselves, even — amazingly — in the midst of the legal battles and court trials. Here’s footage of Arnold Friedman the night before he went to jail, attempting joviality with his sons; here are dozens of other clips showing the family in its natural habitat, trying to maintain normalcy despite the horrific problems facing it.

Jarecki also excels at telling the story in a manner that is fascinating without being manipulative. By revealing information in a methodical manner, he takes us on a twisted path of conflicting emotions. At first, it seems obvious that Arnold is guilty of all the crimes. Some of the students who accused him are interviewed, some in shadows or with their voices altered. The evidence seems irrefutable.

But then other details emerge. One student appears on camera, fully recognizable, and insists nothing untoward ever happened. Logical facts are presented that make the stories of the children seem suspect. Jesse continues to maintain his own innocence, flatly contradicting what his lawyer tells Jarecki about the way his case was handled.

And then there are more facts about the Friedmans, about Arnold’s upbringing, about his brother, about Elaine’s disposition toward the family. Up to the final minutes, more information is being revealed, so much that you get the feeling if the film went on for another hour, it would only get more rich and textured.

Jarecki’s style is even-handed and fair, showing all sides of the issue in a non-hysterical way. I honestly don’t know Jarecki’s opinion on the innocence or guilty of the Friedmans, and that’s a good thing. The subject matter is harrowing (though the details of it are not dwelt upon unduly), but the film is so well-made and thought-provoking that its social importance should outweigh any qualms one has about seeing it. It’s not something I can say I “enjoyed,” necessarily, but I’m certainly glad to have seen such an accomplished piece of work.

A (1 hr., 48 min.; R, some harsh profanity, graphic descriptions of sexuality, heavy mature themes.)