It's hard to watch a film like Capturing the Friedmans and remember that it's a work of art. The story that this intensely compelling documentary tells us is about a real family caught up in allegations of sexual abuse. The gravity of the subject matter, along with the designation "documentary," puts us into a mood of taking everything very seriously. And so we watch as director Andrew Jarecki tells us about Arnold Friedman, a much-loved retired science teacher, who gave computer lessons in his basement. After allegations surfaced that Arnold was a pedophile, the police searched the Friedmans' home, turning up child pornography. Quickly escalating to staggering levels, the case against Arnold extended to his son Jesse. Both were imprisoned. Arnold died; Jesse was eventually released.
What brings us dangerously close to forgetting that we're watching a movie is another movie. Jarecki was given home movies shot by another Friedman son, David. An aggressive documentarian, David hauls out his camera and intrudes into the lives of his family from the first allegations onward. What emerges, between his footage and Jarecki's contemporary interviews, is a story of a community thirsty for vengeance, a family confused and hurt, a judicial system interested in proving guilt more than allowing for innocence, and a son (Jesse) who may well have been wrongly imprisoned.
It's harrowing to watch at times, particularly the footage shot by David. And the danger is that it's compelling enough to convince us that we actually know something about the situation. But when we watch it, and try to judge the Friedmans, we're really evaluating them based on the filmmaker's art. There is the artistry of Jarecki as he interviews the surviving family members and then edits the footage he was given. Then there is the artistry of David Friedman's home movies. Each member of the family becomes unglued, expressing rage and frustration in epic, dramatic ways (although Arnold becomes a terrifying cipher). And given the hysteria surrounding the case, it appears that the behavior of the judicial system and the Friedman's community is half-theatrical as well. In the end, by not living through it, the best we're given is a sort of ultimate reality TV show. Is that enough for the truth? Perhaps a truth. The problem is that the film is brilliant enough to make you think that it's the truth.