June 29, 2003|When it came to light in 1987 that retired teacher/patriarch Arnold Friedman was a practicing pedophile, and that he and his youngest son Jesse had been accused of dozens of counts of child molestation, the mild-mannered, middle-class Friedman clan were caught up in a whirlwind. Being caught in a whirlwind is also what's happened to director Andrew Jarecki, who sold his company Moviefone to AOL in 1999 for an amount in excess of $350M and somehow wound up writing the theme song for TV's "Felicity" before finding himself at the helm of Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary feature (Jarecki's first film) that has already landed him the Grand Jury Prize for a documentary feature at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a featured hour on NPR's "Fresh Air", an article in THE NEW YORKER, and a record opening in New York, all of which has the picture poised to be the most talked-about of the year. And being caught in a whirlwind is the circumstance that found me talking to Mr. Jarecki--each on a burping cell phone, driving to other appointments in cities across the country from one another.
It is that feeling of being off guard that is the lingering impression I have of Capturing the Friedmans--that only in the midst of astonishing chaos (Hamlet's "sea of troubles," perhaps) can any individual truly know the contents of their character and the quality of their response. The picture is an important one not because it addresses guilt or innocence in the Friedman case, but because it so disarms the audience; like The Blair Witch Project (with its amateur, "found" footage, and its rationale for filming) and Memento (in its questioning of the reliability of memory, and the role of memory in identity), the film is able to place itself as a violent violation of existential comfort. Even its main astonishment--home movies shot by David as his family disintegrated under the pressures of public scrutiny and internal discord--is a "play-within-a-play" (that, interestingly enough, serves much the same purpose as Hamlet's ruse), presenting the indescribably complicated relationship between any filmmaker and his audience, as well as the relationship between filmmaking and memory.
Inspired by a childhood in love with magic (and a Susan Orlean article in THE NEW YORKER) to make his directing debut with a documentary about circus clowns, Jarecki interviewed David Friedman, the "#1 Birthday Clown in New York City." Unusually morose responses for a clown lead to a trip to the old Friedman house, where a visit to David's childhood bedroom inspires David to offer: "I don't suppose you want to hear about my mother's suicide attempt." Quirk passing into dark, Jarecki gradually exhumes the freshly dug family plot, creating in Capturing the Friedmans the kind of achievement that, seemingly overnight and seemingly by itself, rejuvenates the medium.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Talk to me about film and memory.
ANDREW JARECKI: At its heart, I think, film is about memory. You remember things in movies that don't happen and you forget things that do so that in time the movie that you see in your memory may be better or worse, or more personal or not, than what was actually there on the screen. We're always involved with creating an experience and it's always disarming to be presented with evidence that our memories are not always adequate. The sort of jeopardy that the Friedmans were in here, the stakes were so much higher, you watch the picture and even for me especially in the beginning, I really wanted someone, anyone to believe. But you realize that everyone you talk to has an agenda even if they don't realize that they have an agenda. When I talked to Fran Galasso, the detective, who said that thing to me about how the one thing you have to worry about in this situation is that even charging someone with this kind of crime is enough to ruin their lives, I felt like, "Ah, here's my person." She's bright, articulate, experienced, she's obviously cautious, and therefore, she's going to be my narrator--I felt this immediate relief, I was drawn to her right away. And not more than five minutes later, she totally impeaches herself and it becomes clear that her recollection couldn't be more incorrect. It's not like she's diabolically motivated, she seems to be completely convinced of her story and you realize that it isn't her changing the story, but in a really scary, really mysterious way, the story is changing on her. The story you tell yourself the most becomes true--it's an interesting phenomena to observe how our memories seem to evolve to suit our needs.
You mention people having hidden agendas, or unconscious agendas. What was your agenda?
That's hard because you don't see it coming all the time. Myself, I'd say that when I began to be aware of this danger, this bias, through interviewing these subjects for the film, I didn't realize how repetitive that experience would become. So in other words, I think that this question of guarding against developing my own agenda is something that snuck up on me though, clearly, it's the central, most difficult question of making something like this. Time would pass and the quality of my belief would change, you know, of who I would put my faith in--and eventually what it did for me was to get me to ask extra questions to get the better feel for my subjects on one level, but of myself, too. It would give me the chance to observe in context whether I thought they were telling the truth, and then I could at least allow myself the belief that I was presenting them in context and with fairness. When somebody tells you about missing documents, and then it turns out that they had a copy of it, it would lead you to believe that there was probably even more that they weren't telling you.
Are you referring to a specific document?
Well... Okay, there was this lie detector test that was given to Jesse and the guy who administered the test reported that Jesse had failed it, and that is one of the key things that convinced Jesse to take the plea because, obviously, if he'd failed a lie detector test, that wouldn't look very good for him in a trial. Well, I wasn't satisfied with that and I went and found the guy who analyzed the test and, in a nutshell, I got the test and had another expert look at the test who said that essentially the test was completely inconclusive, was incompetently administered, and absolutely unclear. That no intelligent lie detector expert in the world could call the thing conclusive one way or another--okay, so that's that. But the more interesting part of it is really how long it took to get that test from a guy who was obviously afraid that I would use it to make some kind of point that would make him look bad. Listen, I mean, I had gotten permission from Jesse, from his attorney, from everyone who mattered, I had signed a piece of paper saying that I wouldn't use the test in the film--I had done everything I possibly could to inoculate this guy from the persecution, and it still took me a year to get that test. Basically, to me, this speaks to how... Well, let me put it another way: you learn a lot more from how difficult it was to get the test than anything that the test itself could ever teach.
I know you contacted a Harvard ethics professor during the making of your picture. Was that more in regards to what to show or not to show, or bigger questions of whether to do it at all?
I didn't worry very much about what to show or what not to show--I didn't think of that in particular as something of an ethical problem. In general, I operated on the belief that if it told the story then it should be shown. I didn't want this to be the story of the railroading of Arnold Friedman, I didn't want it to be the trial of Jesse Friedman, I didn't want this to be an exposé on the police department, I wanted it to be as balanced as it possibly could be about what I observed about this whole process of discovering truth.
Which is an interestingly reflexive comment...
(laughs) Right. You know, you watch the film and there are moments where I hope it's very clear that the police are trying to do the right thing--that for the most part that people have good intentions. But when you look at a list of kids taking an after-school computer class and characterize it as a "potential victims" list to an investigating officer, you're definitely planting a seed that leads to an insurmountable--if probably well-intentioned--bias. But also, there's the fact to weigh that Arnold Friedman was unapologetically a pedophile and not some innocent plucked off the street and maligned by the authorities--a guy who was deeply flawed that raises the spectre in many peoples' minds that even if he wasn't "properly" accused in this case, then surely we can't shed many tears for his ultimate fate. Aren't we splitting hairs about what happened in the computer class? I mean, this guy was going to get himself in jail at some point, right, for some reason or another. But even if you say that ultimately the outcome's honest, that this guy should be in jail, it doesn't address the fact that his son was dragged off to jail with him. If your conclusions by the end are that Arnold was a surreptitious, clever man who was lying for most of his adult life to his wife and children, you still can't reconcile the fact that Jesse seems to be implicated almost just because he was there.
Your film is interesting in that it almost implicates its audience in the same way, that feeling that you're there and that maybe you shouldn't be watching someone else's life like this--I'm thinking in particular of David's journal.
David never really held that back from me. I think that as an artist, in a way, and David is an artist, that if he was going to give me all this other stuff, he had to give me his personal journals because he understood that to leave out how deeply personal all of this was, would be to lessen the truth of the story.
Yet I was stricken by David's flat rejection of a note in which his father confesses being "sexually aroused" by self-described inappropriate contact with a child. Of "crossing a line"...
I had to be very straightforward with David at one point--I had to tell him point blank that he needed to come to terms with his father's pedophilia because without that acceptance, he would lose his credibility. I don't know that it happens in the film, but since the film, he's seen it several times and even come to a few Q&A sessions with me, and he's gradually coming to accept, I think, that even if his father had this deep flaw, that it's still okay to love him and to miss him. There was this amazing Q&A session I had at the Tribeca Film Festival where it seemed like every principle figure in the film was in attendance--there was this amazing exchange that went on for like an hour-and-a-half where Fran Galasso would say something and then David would say something and then Peter Panaro, Jesse's lawyer at the time of the trial, would answer--and then this guy stands up at the top row of the theatre in this little windbreaker and says that he has something to say about it all, and it's Jesse. I think sentimentally, David's feeling was--and I don't know how much of this is primitive, I don't know how much he actually thought about it--getting back to the journals, that no matter what you think of his family, y'know, you could call us crazy, you could call us a bad name, or hysterical, but you can't look at this footage and believe that these people were the one-dimensional cut-outs portrayed by the media. The more you see of the Friedmans through their home movies, the more they become recognizable as versions, albeit exaggerated versions, of ourselves.
Speaking of facsimiles, I was doubly stricken by David's rationale late in the film for videotaping as a means of distancing himself from memory.
When your parents take pictures of you when you're really little, you don't remember being there, you just remember the picture on the wall. My grandfather, I remember, he had a traumatic life--he was in Germany and had to leave, and he would be sitting there with my family in some intimate moment, and I'd look over and he'd be looking at a picture or something and there was a tremor there, he was unable to look at a picture without turning it into a memory.
Let me tell you this story--when I showed the film to Elaine for the first time in this house in the Berkshires, there was a part in the film early on when she just said--to no one in particular, or to the film, I don't know, that, "Arnold liked pictures, let's face it, he just liked pictures"--just right out loud. And then later, she looked at the screen while she was saying something and she said, "I never said that," and then later, same thing, she says, "I never said that, either." And I think it was more than just a feeling that she'd been misrepresented somehow, but almost as though she had become completely disconnected with the experience, just in the amount of time between filming her and the finished product here, that she had been able to separate herself from the things she had said. At a certain point she got up and walked out in the hall and sat down. I said, "Elaine, do you want me to pause it?" And she said, "No, I prefer just to listen to it." So that touches a little on what David was saying, I think, that desire to cut out just one thing--just one stimuli--so that the experience of it isn't quite so intimate, quite so overwhelming.