Sunday, October 07, 2007

Capturing the Friedmans

The verdict: Absorbing, devastating real-life story which challenges the viewer to decide who is telling the truth.

The rating: 8/10

Capturing the Friedmans tackles some particularly difficult source material. Arnold Friedman was a school teacher accused of molestation, and this documentary recounts his story and that of his family, as told from the perspective of his wife, kids, brother, the police involved in the investigation and some of the kids he taught.

What makes this movie of particular interest however, is the large amounts genuine home movie footage shot by Friedman's three sons over the course of this ordeal. As their family unravels, they record the chaotic events inside the Friedman house, while the media reports chart events outside, making this a 'reality' story imbued with real emotional turmoil and genuine surreality. All of this footage is supplemented by accounts from the people at the centre of the storm.

The media and police would profer the simple explanation that Friedman plead guilty and was convicted of these crimes, and therefore was a despicable monster, undeserving of any further attention from anyone. The real story, however, is far more nuanced. The Friedmans were a seemingly wealthy middle-class Jewish family. Arnold was a popular teacher, with a successful career and three kids, with whom he had a close relationship, as the Friedman home video footage shows.

However, things start to unravel when Arnold Friedman receives a magazine in the post from the Netherlands, featuring pornographic images of underage boys. The house is searched, and more such magazines are found. As the police investigation continues, whispers of 'inappropriate touching' become fully-fledged abuse allegations, and suddenly the community of Great Neck is in full paedophile alert. To make matters worse for the Friedman family, Arnold's son Jesse is also implicated in the allegations.

This movie uses the accounts of the people involved in this trial, and the Friedman's home video footage, to re-examine the case with the benefit of perspective. As Friedman's past is recounted, and his brother and wife are interviewed, we learn more about the character of the man, and the details of his certainly unconventional upbringing, and early sexual history. As his sons are interviewed, we learn more about the strong family bond that existed between father and sons, but certainly not between mother and the rest of the family.

It is a harrowing movie, revealing detail after detail of the events surrounding the trial in such a way as to challenge the audience's perception of what actually happened. Friedman sr's guilt is not really on trial, but the method of his incarceration is certainly evaluated with a cold eye. As to Friedman jr, the details surrounding his arrest and trial are particularly harrowing, including the bizarre home video footage of the night before his sentencing.

'Capturing the Friedmans' is hard-hitting, intelligent and difficult, as it forces the audience to view the facts surrounding an intensely emotional issue with a cold logical eye. As the movie progressed, I found myself questioning who I sympathised with, as well as questioning who was telling the truth, and how much truth they were really revealing.

This is fascinating stuff, and heartily recommended.

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