"Capturing the Friedmans"
Director: Andrew Jarnecki
Patricia Ducey

"Sigmund Say: Kill your Daddies"

For those of you who like your Bad Dads straight up, no CGI, and with a beer chaser, see Capturing the Friedmans, the best movie/film/documentary of my summer.

Documentarian Andrew Jarnecki, the CEO and founder of Moviefone, set out to make a documentary about "Silly Billy," the top birthday party clown in Manhattan. Once Jarnecki discovered that "Billy" was actually David Friedman the son of convicted pedophile Arnold Friedman, and had a stash of family videotapes chronicling the saga, he dropped the clown idea and concentrated on the legal and emotional travails of the family once Arnold was formally accused (with reportedly reluctant participating from David). The Friedman's troubles were sparked by the discovery of child pornography in the possession of paterfamilias Arnold and perhaps also by the 80s zeitgeist that produced the McMartin pre-school molestation case and subsequent hysteria.

Unlike myths like Frankenstein or Hulk that seek to demystify and control our wild impulses of sexuality, of families, of hate and love, the lines demarcating good and evil in this mesmerizing film dissolve and bleed into each other absolving and damning all. There are no winners in this murky and brutally real morality play.

The Friedman family was as close to normal as any. The three sons adored their father and only broke with their mother later over disagreements about guilt and legal strategy. Jarnecki uses teenaged David's own video of the family's dissolution, newscasts from the time, and current interviews with interrogators, victims and pundits alike. David's video diary tells us two things: the depth of his own despair and his howling need to tell his story to someone far enough removed from his tumultuous present to judge his family fairly.

Investigative reporter Debbie Nathan's commentary on the case runs throughout the film. She analyzed this mass molestation case, like many others, and came to the believable conclusion that many of the claims of the children were false, especially the "recovered" repressed memories. This debunking frames Jarnecki's narrative and perhaps names it, but just when we think we have settled on a villain, Jarnecki throws us a curve of credible evidence that leads us to doubt our prior certainty. We are left in the end with more questions than answers, not by cheap narrative trickery, but by the emotional truth that permeates the film. Is there a connection between a society that denies the subconscious and the vile "acting out" of individuals like pedophiles? Can Reason explain, categorize and sanitize every mystery away? Where do the lurid stories of a young child come from, if not from some inchoate and unreachable place within each of us? The caring but overreaching authorities appear to be as flummoxed by these questions as we are.

It is difficult to determine what is true and what is not, what is fantasy and what is fact, in Capturing the Friedmans. I could only deduce perhaps one true villain and one completely innocent victim. I think I understand, though, why the teenage David Friedman insisted on filming his disintegrating family during their most painful moments: he hoped, like all who watch it, to someday understand and control the forces that lie somewhere beyond understanding.

-- Patricia Ducey

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Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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