One Family’s Elusive Truth: Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans”
by Nick Poppy
Before he ever made a film, Andrew Jarecki’s work loomed large in the lives of moviegoers. Jarecki was the founder and CEO of MovieFone, the company that made film schedules and theater information (voiced in the goofily garrulous baritone of business partner Russ Leatherman) available over the telephone. After they sold MovieFone to AOL in 1999, Jarecki decided to become a filmmaker himself. He wanted to direct his own movie, something simple and easy to start.
As Jarecki remembers it, “I wanted to make something kind of light, and kind of manageable, and so I started making this film about professional children’s birthday party entertainers in New York City. It’s this strange, quirky group of people who live among children and who call each other by their clown names…It’s a little bit of an Errol Morris world, and I thought that would be an interesting place to go.” Why do famous understatements always sound like last words?
There is always an element of uncertainty in making a documentary. Scripts don’t hold, subjects do unexpected things, stories go in strange directions, and often the whole mess is clarified only in editing. Andrew Jarecki started making one movie, a light documentary about clowns, and ended up with something completely different: “Capturing The Friedmans,” the story of a family that is destroyed by allegations of child molestation and pedophilia. The film opens today from Magnolia Pictures.
“A friend of my said, ‘You should call it “Scratch a Clown,”‘” says Jarecki, who offers some further inspiration for the original subject matter: “Did you ever see the movie ‘Quickchange’? It’s one of the most underrated Bill Murray comedies ever. It’s a very interesting movie. The opening scene is Bill Murray robbing a bank dressed as a clown. And at one point, the pistol-whipped bank guard is on the floor and Murray stands towering over him in his clown shoes and his funny nose and makeup and everything, brandishing this weapon, and the bank guard looks up at him and says, ‘What kind of a clown are you?’ And Murray looks back at him and says, ‘The crying-on-the-inside kind, I guess.’ For some reason that really resonated with me.”
Jarecki’s research for his initial idea of a film took him to David Friedman, the generally acknowledged clown king of the New York children’s party circuit. They started talking, and it came out that Friedman had a secret story. His father Arnold, a popular science teacher in Great Neck, Long Island, had been arrested and convicted of child pornography and molestation some years before, along with David’s younger brother Jesse. “And that,” as Jarecki recalls, “was the beginning of the evolution of this whole other film.” Once David gave his ambivalent blessing to the filmmaker to tell the Friedmans’ story, he helped Jarecki connect with other family members. “David said to me, once he knew that I had changed movies, ‘If you’re going to make this other movie, and I have mixed feelings about that, you have to really make it right.'” David handed over several hours of home movie footage — of the Friedmans in their happy earlier years, and also later, after Arnold and Jesse had been arrested: the Friedmans, captured. Jarecki notes, “When I started looking at that material, I realized I was going to be in for the long haul.”
The haul lasted three years, and what emerged from that process was a movie very much in keeping with Jarecki’s documentary polestar, Errol Morris. (It is interesting to remember that many of Morris’s early works, including “Gates of Heaven,” “Vernon, Florida” and “Thin Blue Line,” were also conceived as very different films from their final results.) “Capturing The Friedmans” tells the story of the unfortunate family and the horrible accusations it faced, using interviews with law enforcement, as well as the family’s home movie footage. The film tries to get to the bottom of what really happened, both to the students in Arnold Friedman’s computer classes and to his disintegrating family. Yet, as a piece of detective work, “Capturing the Friedmans” raises more questions than it answers. Ultimately, it asks us how we know anything, and why we think we do.
Like “Thin Blue Line,” the film considers the malleability of memory, particularly as it pertains to criminal justice. “Capturing the Friedmans” probes our mental constructions of the past, and suggests that the mind is a porous, poorly tended vessel of experience. According to Jarecki, “People say, ‘My memory is in my memory banks.’ That kind of implies that your memory is like a chip, and that you put it away and it’s just sitting there, and later on you can access it and the same information will come back. But I don’t think it’s like that at all. I think it’s this big, soupy electrical mass of impulses, and basically the minute you put something into memory, it starts changing again. It sort of evolves over time to suit your needs.” This is illustrated by interviews with some the police officers involved with the case, and even more strikingly, by interviews with the Friedmans’ purported victims; people remember one version of the story, and are shown to have experienced another. Which is fine when it comes to fishing stories or football games, but a wholly different matter when peoples’ lives are at stake. Jarecki, however, stops short of placing the blame on anybody, maybe because he sees how easy it is for memory to fail. “To some extent, I think everybody [involved in the case] was doing their best. In other words, I think that the police officer who says, ‘I saw X,’ and then a minute later we realize that maybe she didn’t, I think she thinks she saw that. I don’t think she’s tricking me, I don’t think she’s putting together a story for me. I think she’s saying, ‘I don’t have to craft a story, because I just remember it the way it was.’ Even if it wasn’t that way. There is a certain kind of stubborn tendency for the truth to evade us somehow here.”
It is that notion of a shifting, elusive truth that forms the heart of “Capturing the Friedmans.” Jarecki observes that even the footage of the Friedman family’s private deliberations fails to illuminate their situation completely. “You’d imagine, if you really want to get to the bottom of something…you’d stick a tape recorder under the door, into the family room, and listen to one of their arguments,” he says. “Then we’ll really know. And in this film, we do that all the time, and we still don’t know. That’s an interesting thing. It’s like, no matter how close you get to somebody, do you really know them? No matter how close you get to the story, do you really understand it? Do you have the authoritative line on it? Here you have all these incredibly articulate people. This is not a bunch of hillbillies. These are intelligent, middle-class Jewish people, and law enforcement officers who are highly competent, many of them, and yet nobody can agree on anything.”
Did Arnold Friedman sexually molest his students? Did Jesse Friedman? “Capturing the Friedmans” suggests answers to both of these questions, and yet in so doing, runs the risk of undermining its own subtle arguments. The film is so effective in showing how knowledge is constructed, we begin to doubt the messenger. This is not a fault, inasmuch as it makes its case for the essential haziness of any inquiry. However, it’s a good thing MovieFone didn’t operate on these principles, or we might be forever in doubt as to what’s playing at the Angelika at seven.