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All About the Friedmans

A new documentary takes a raw look at a vilified family.


Should we be watching this? As director Andrew Jarecki presents it, we can’t help it, even though the story is equally sad, embarrassing and hard to believe.

By 1987, Arnold Friedman was a successful family man, an award-winning science teacher living in the affluent Long Island suburb of Great Neck with his wife and three sons. Not exactly Fred MacMurray, as a detective in the film dutifully points out, Friedman kept a stack of child pornography hidden in his basement office behind the piano he would often play for his family and their ever-present home-movie cameras.

After breaking down the door of Arnold Friedman’s home that November with a warrant, police found the stack of magazines and other pornographic materials depicting young boys. They also found lists of students enrolled in Arnold Friedman’s after-school computer classes. “I think we could have a problem here,” an investigator remembers saying. With pictures from magazines like JailBait fresh in their minds, an army of detectives involved with a potentially vast child rape case marched on homes all over Great Neck, informing the students’ parents of the situation and interviewing their kids.

Jarecki sets up Arnold Friedman’s guilt as sure as it must have seemed to investigators, only to shake our confidence with new revelations. For many viewers, a detective’s matter-of-fact admission that you have to lead a child’s testimony in order to get the truth and another’s admission during the trial of a “dearth” of physical evidence will at the very least raise serious doubts as to whether Friedman (charged along with youngest son Jesse) was given even a moment’s due process in the minds of investigators. The controversies and inconsistencies surrounding the case in “Capturing the Friedmans” are as numerous as they are compelling, smartly arranged by Jarecki to convince us one way, and then the other.

Pretty soon we don’t know what to believe: Some former students (now adults) testify to countless horrors; others say they saw nothing. Arnold Friedman is alternately vilified as a monster and acquitted as a boring nebbish. In one masterful segment, we get a succinct description of the surrounding community, a hamlet of ubiquitous Volvos and golf bags where people dress up to go shopping and the competition is so high one investigator remembers them bragging about whose child was sodomized most. All this to an often upbeat soundtrack and all those home movies capturing the private moments of the Friedmans, who like to goof off on film so much we are shocked to learn that middle son, Seth, refused to be interviewed for the documentary.

These snippets of home movie alternately defend and condemn the family. True, the Friedmans often come off as the kind who might find comfort baring their souls on “Oprah,” but they’re also undeniably admirable in their unembarrassed humanity. It is a testament to the filmmaker that his first feature is able to capture them so completely, not only their tragedy and all its sordid details, but also the fact that they are so willing, even now, to put it all on display. **** S

“Capturing the Friedmans,” originally scheduled to open at the Westhampton Theater Aug. 8, has been rescheduled for Aug. 22, according to the film’s promoters.

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