An extremely confronting documentary, Capturing the Friedmans (2003, dir. Andrew Jarecki) focuses on a normal family that becomes a media sensation as a father and son are accused of heinous crimes against children. Family patriarch Arnold Friedman was a popular community figure and science teacher when, on the day of Thanksgiving 1987, he was busted for possession of child pornography. After this initial discovery, this criminal charge expanded to include the sexual assault of numerous children, who attended computer classes at his home. His son Jesse was later charged as an additional perpetrator of the assaults. However, both insist that such assaults never occurred. Capturing the Friedmans explores the facts and ambiguities around this case, and the impact that the criminal investigation had upon the family.
Similar to other true crime documentaries, such as The Thin Blue Line (1988), Capturing the Friedmans communicates very clearly the difficulties that are involved with incredibly complex criminal cases. It tells the story of the Friedman family in an approachable and understandable way, through the use of lots of home video footage and talking head interviews which narrate them. At times it almost feels voyeuristic because the home videos involve very personal moments and arguments between the family members, for example, when all the Friedman sons begin picking on their mother and accusing her of never caring for them. The storytelling in this film is extremely sound and totally engaging, and it is supremely interesting to see what happens to each of the family members involved. But at the same time, there isn’t a film where you’ll want to look away more.
It must be noted that this film puts its viewers in a really horrible and disgusting headspace, as it does focus on two individuals who were convicted of numerous and repetitive sexual assaults against children. For people who might be triggered by themes of child abuse and sexual assault, this definitely isn’t a safe film to watch. At times there are graphic descriptions of the types of abuses perpetrated against children, and it is just generally very difficult to listen to. I have worked extensively with children who have suffered sexual abuse and trauma, and even with this background it was difficult to watch and listen to certain scenes. So please beware!
Even though I really hated watching this film due to its often reprehensible content, it is technically a really excellent documentary. It deftly illustrates the complex issues and blurring of the lines around certain criminal cases, and also illustrates the hysteria of the public’s responses to public court cases, particularly where child sexual assault is involved. The use of music and intercutting of vignettes of suburban life were both top notch. Overall, this is an effective documentary because it provides an interesting insight into a clearly complex case, and a voyeuristic view of a family’s collapse. It’s a great film, but I would never want to watch it ever again!
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film on Amazon!