Family matters

Capturing the Friedmans is a non-fiction feature film that explores the elusive nature of truth through the prism of one of the strangest criminal cases in American history.

The Friedmans seem at first to be a typical family. Arnold Friedman is an award-winning schoolteacher, his wife Elaine, a homemaker. Together, they raise their three boys in the affluent Long Island town of Great Neck. On Thanksgiving in 1987 the family is preparing for a quiet holiday dinner. In an instant, a police battering ram splinters the front door and officers rush into the house. Arnold and his 18-year-old son Jesse are arrested.

Father and son are indicted for hundreds of crimes involving child abuse. While the family vehemently declares its innocence, the Great Neck community is in an uproar, and the Friedmans are the target of their rage.

The film follows the family’s story—from the public’s perspective and, most remarkably, through unique footage of the family in crisis, shot by family members inside the Friedman house.

As the police pursue the investigation, and the community reacts, the fabric of the family begins to disintegrate, revealing disturbing questions about justice, community, family and—ultimately—truth.

Was there one moment that led you to want to take what eventually became a three-year journey to make this film?

A few years ago, before I really understood the depth of the Friedman story, I interviewed Elaine Friedman. At one point I had asked a question, and she drifted off for a moment, sort of lost in a memory. Then she stopped herself, saying: “I don’t know. I—I can’t say too much about it. We were a family.”

The idea of a woman in her 70s speaking about her family in the past tense was strikingly sad. I didn’t know how this family had ceased to be a family, but I was determined to understand it.

What would you say the film is about?

On a literal level, it is the story of a family, and we follow their history and experience through some extremely unusual territory. The crime described is the centrepiece in that it drives the behaviour of the family, and of the community.

On a philosophical level, the film is about the elusive nature of truth; how our memories evolve over time to suit our needs. It’s also about the nature of family and of society; what we owe each other as members of a family and of a community.

Sounds like an unusual family. Is it?

In a way it is, but what is most surprising is how similar families are. People who see the film are at times tempted to say, “That is the most screwed up family I’ve ever seen.” But then, after they get past the more salacious elements of the story and have a chance to reflect on it, they usually add something like, “But you know, that one character really reminded me of someone in my family ...”

I hope that by seeing this family up close—and particularly through the home movies that are integrated throughout the film—we’ll come to understand them. Whether or not we like them or agree with them, we’ll see them as people with whom we have certain things in common.

You mention the home movies used in the film. We all take videos of our families. How are these home movies different?

The first difference is the kind of material they chose to capture on film. While most families use home movies just to document special celebrations like birthdays, this family never turned the camera off—even after the police showed up and their lives began to change for ever. They filmed their most intimate moments.

Another major difference is how much of their lives they filmed. Starting with 8mm films shot three generations ago, the family documented itself incessantly.

Most families faced with a crisis would drop everything and just focus on how to resolve it. But the Friedmans took the time to record their activities and responses. What made them do that?

I think they understood the story might be hard for them or others to understand in the years to come. It all happened so fast that they didn’t have time to really grasp the process as it was unfolding. David, the eldest son, had just gotten a video camera and, as someone in the film says, he just started “recording the family falling apart”.

Why did the family wait so long to tell their story?

I think it was a story they had wanted, even needed, to tell for a long time, but hadn’t really known where to begin. They needed distance, years to gain some perspective. And they also knew that telling the story too early could be dangerous for them, since the events described in the story didn’t end, even to this day.

Why do you think after all these years of keeping the story secret, they began to open up about it? Why do you feel they were willing to share their story with you?

Some of the family members have never really been able to get their lives back to normal, and I think telling the story is necessary to accomplishing that. Maybe I came along at the right moment for them.

I think the family members had the sense that I would tell the story in a respectful and compassionate way. And that I was willing to do the work to understand the story, which is really complex.

As the family saw us really take the time to investigate the case, their comfort level increased. We came to understand things about the case that the family had never known. That also helped the relationship develop.

Did everyone in the family agree on the basic facts?

Not at all. I’ve spoken to just about everybody who’s a living member of the family and never gotten the same story twice. Everyone has a different recollection. 

Was a crime committed?

Well, on one level that is something you’ll see addressed in the film. But on another level, it’s irrelevant. What I would like to see happen is that people leave and say, “You know, I’ve seen a lot of films this year where, at the end, I’m supposed to think something. And here, I’m not supposed to think something. I’m just supposed to think.” That’s my hope.

Capturing the Friedmans is distributed by Encounters Distribution. It opens at the Labia on Orange, Cape Town, on December 17 and will run for six weeks. It will then transfer to Jo’burg (date to be announced). For more information Tel: (021) 461 1246

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