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January 30, 2005

Review: Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Freidmans

In 1988 two men, a father and a son, were accused of and pled guilty to hundreds of counts of very heinous crimes. Both went to prison; one died there, and the other was released quite some time later. These are the facts that we can agree upon; the truth beyond these facts, even as to the guilt of the charged, is unclear.

Capturing the Friedmans is an extraordinary documentary because it seeks to make us challenge our assumptions about what our judicial process can deliver. We come away from the film completely uncertain about anything but the base facts as I've outlined them above. We are uncertain about the people who took and are taking part of this drama -- is Elaine Friedman really the harridan she is made out to be by her sons, or is she perhaps a woman who knows more than she says, or is she a woman who broke under the very real strain of having a husband and son accused of child molestation? Is Dave Friedman a son who was hoodwinked by his belief in his father as a hero, or is he a man who knows the truth and has been doggedly pursuing it these many years? Who was Arnold Friedman? Who is Jesse Freidman, really? Were these men guilty of the crimes to which they pled guilt, or were they targets of mass hysteria¹? These are truths we can't know -- all we can have is the facts as we know them.

I think I've been wrongly calibrated to think of our justice system as being about getting to the bottom of things, getting to the truth of the matter². After all, isn't that what we see week-in, week-out on Law & Order and its various spawn? Sure, Sam Waterston plays all sorts of tricks to win, but don't they ultimately get to the truth? Aren't we surprised on those rare occasions that he is hoodwinked?

It's a sobering thought, to consider that we don't really ever know the truth of the matter when it comes to what went on before the matter came into the courthouse. What goes on in the courthouse we document in myriad ways -- we stenograph, we draw pictures, we can even film in there these days -- but as to what came before, what brought us there, we can't really know. Fiction has told us this -- but isn't documentary about the truth?

The materials that capture this story range from the ordinary and familiar -- photographs, post facto interviews -- to the extraordinary and yet still familiar -- home video captured by the family during the preparation for trial. I don't know that I would want to do that if ever I found myself or my loved ones in this sort of situation; yet, I am glad that this family did.

These are the facts as we know them: In 1988 two men, a father and a son, were accused of and pled guilty to hundreds of counts of very heinous crimes. Both went to prison; one died there, and the other was released quite some time later. I thank Director Andrew Jarecki for reminding me that the rest can only be supposition and guesswork.

***½ (out of four)


¹I admit, I am aware that mass hysteria ruined a few perfectly normal daycare centers in the early 80s, when a rash of concern that satanic rituals were being practiced there overcame common sense and decency. There were a number of people improperly incarcerated in those cases -- this we know.
²Not entirely, I admit. Last year, I watched the documentary Deadline when it aired in its entirety on televison.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 30, 2005 10:47 PM

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