Monday, October 27, 2003

Just saw Capturing the Friedmans and in my opinion, the contest for best documentary of the year is over. Granted, I haven't seen that many documentaries this year, but this one sets a standard of ingenuity, intelligence and downright unshakeable interest that I think will be just about impossible to beat. Brilliantly blending together both home movies, original footage, and a restless skepticism toward all participants, this is a riveting story of a family faced with criminal charges that may or may not be true; a family that shatters to bits before our eyes and ears. It makes the viewer a voyeur, a fly on the wall witness to some really awful moments from a family of emotional exhibitionists.

The family in question are, like many families in the past few decades, ones who have committed a good deal of their lives together to film and videotape, the way their own parents and grandparents used cameras. Primarily this is the fixation of Arnold Friedman, who has managed to keep a loose record of his entire life on film. From his marriage and honeymoon with his wife Elaine, to their subsequent life with their sons David, Seth and Jesse, it's as if no celebration, no moment of joy or happiness or plain silliness, is really complete unless the videotape is rolling. The family we see in the footage is, of course, a happy one, perhaps a genuinely happy one; David himself later comments that his memories of his childhood with his father are all good.

The camera will be there too when everything goes sour. Arnold begins teaching a computer class to young boys in the neighborhood. He also, as the postal inspector discovers, has a taste for mail-order child pornography. He gets busted, the police haul him off to jail, and begin investigating whether he has abused the children under his care. Suddenly Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, then in his late teens, are both accused of molesting young boys over a period of several years.

As the family gets knocked back and forth by this tragedy, David's video camera (andJesse's audio recorder) are there to capture a considerable amount of pain. There's an awareness of the camera, but it doesn't inhibit anyone; in keeping with the old Buck Owens song that plays over the opening credits, the Friedmans "act naturally," both joking about the case and tearing themselves and each other apart over it.

The best documentaries teach you something you don't know; this one goes even further, it's about how difficult it is to trust what we know, what we think we know, particularly as it involves sensational court cases. This is not a film like, say, The Thin Blue Line or Brother's Keeper that seeks to exonerate the accused; rather, it's a film where it's difficult if not impossible to get a grip on what really, truly happened. No testimony in the film -- from the cops, the accused, the accusers -- is completely, totally, take-it-to-the-bank trustworthy; every fact we learn in this case is followed by a "Yes, but..." The cops and prosecutors say he's guilty, but you can't expect otherwise. David is absolutely convinced of his father's innocence, but then again, he loved him deeply; Elaine is a good deal less sure, but then again, she had a rough and mostly sexless marriage with Arnold and hates him for what he has brought on the family. It is a fact that the Friedmans were arrested amidst the child abuse hysteria that was running rampant in the 1980s, when everytime you turned around some daycare or divorced dad or schoolteacher was accused of holding Satanic rituals with five-year-olds; it is also a fact that Arnold really did collect child porn and was excited by young boys. It is true the boys who attended his computer class say he and Jesse both molested them; it is also true some boys and at least one parent firmly and totally deny knowledge of anything whatsoever occurring. Arnold and Jesse both protest their innocence totally, but with both it's hard to tell where reality ends and b.s. begins, especially with Arnold -- in my case, I was not inclined to believe he was guilty as charged, but God knows he wasn't exactly innocent either. I think maybe his wife -- not exactly his best friend -- had it right when she said he "had a need to confess, and a need to go to jail." All we know at the end is that something happened, and that a father and son -- and possibly their victims -- suffered; whether they actually suffered for the sins of which they were accused is much less clear.

It's a documentary Rashomon; I don't think I've seen another film like it.

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