A Harrowing Documentary
Capturing the Friedmans reminded me of Sidney Lumet's classic courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men. Both films present a third person account of a crime that has apparently taken place, in which the case against the accused initially seems insurmountable, but which is gradually broken down, leaving a gloomy, rather ambiguous conclusion.
Unlike Twelve Angry Men, however, Capturing the Friedmans is a documentary, and an extraordinary one at that. It follows a Jewish family, the Friedmans of the title, whose suburban lives are gradually torn apart by allegations of child abuse against the father and one of the three sons. Arnold, the father, would regularly give music and computer lessons to groups of local children, and it was during these sessions that the accusers claim the startling crimes took place. What makes the film so astonishing is the wealth of home movie footage used, as the family were fanatical filmmakers; and this footage makes up the bulk of the film, giving an unprecedented insight into the Friedmans' lives and the damage wrought by the allegations.
Clearly, this is disturbing material, and the amount of home video used makes the film feel invasive and voyeuristic. The film succeeds in making us doubt the veracity of the specific allegations, but presents the Friedmans nonetheless as a damaged, dysfunctional family. This makes for some painful scenes, particularly when the children fiercely turn against their mother, with Arnold silently complicit, as she refuses to assume his innocence. Other moments are darkly comic, such as when Arnold's wife gives a rather Freudian explanation for his fondness for child pornography; "He never acted on it, they were just something he liked to look at and... meditate."
Capturing the Friedmans won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and presents a fascinating story, compellingly dissecting the evidence of the case. What it lacks, without wishing to sound shallow, is someone to root for. Whether or not Arnold is guilty of these particular crimes, the film makes it absolutely clear that he did present a sexual threat to young children, so we're not actually too concerned whether or not he was misrepresented in this particular case. There are also moments of bad taste on the part of director Andrew Jarecki, such as the ironic use of the Beatles' chirpy "Act Naturally" over the credits. As a result Capturing the Friedmans fails to fully engage, and is an unpleasant, harrowing experience.
My rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars
(Released by Magnolia Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)