Director Andrew Jarecki was making a short documentary about David Friedman, New York’s number-one Clown, when he stumbled across his shocking past: both David’s brother, Jesse, and his father, Arnold, had been accused of abusing young boys during computer lessons in Great Neck, Long Island, and sent to prison for their crimes. When David allowed the director to see the hours of home-movies that his family had obsessively shot of themselves right up until the conviction, Jarecki knew that he had to make a documentary about their story. Here he talks about his experience of shooting Capturing the Friedmans, his filmmaking influences and the reactions that this extraordinary and compelling story has provoked.
Hannah Patterson: Capturing the Friedmans adeptly takes the audience in one direction – that of the abuse that appears to have occurred – and then turns another way, beginning to sow the seed of doubt. Does this structure mirror your own experiences of discovery and investigation?
Andrew Jarecki: I certainly think we cut the film in a way that was designed to share some of the experience of discovering the story. You could just state off the bat, ‘Well, you know, after a lot of back and forth on the issue, it seems like the following people say the following things.’ Because certain things were happening that were curious, like David Friedman denying something that his father had already admitted to, it seemed to me that David, who had much less information about it than his father, was giving us a new interpretation that was unlikely to be as accurate as the one his father had already given us. On the other hand, we had a police investigator, Frances Galssao, who’s the real chief detective, the engine behind the whole case, who comes across as being extremely rational and cautious when you first meet her, and very articulate, and then within fifteen minutes we see she impeaches herself by telling a story that turns out to be a lie. It just seemed to me that it was important for the audience to experience those kinds of revelations in the same way that I had. So we weren’t just telling the audience about them, rather, we were letting them be led astray – because understanding our propensity to be led astray is critical to understanding the film.
HP: Right, and that’s absolutely what the film’s about. Notions of memory and how it may or may not play tricks on you when it comes to questions of truth.
HP: Which is never arrived at here: there are only myriad versions of a truth.
AJ: That’s true. The film is not exclusively about what happened in the case but rather a rumination on this family, and the nature of family, and the nature of memory and truth. I don’t think it would serve itself or the audience well by saying ‘it’s pretty hard to arrive at the truth and by the way, we’re pretty confident that we did’. Having spoken to a lot of unreliable narrators, I felt that to try to position myself as the most reliable of those unreliable narrators wouldn’t make a lot of sense either. And frankly, I embraced the complexity of the story. I don’t think it necessarily improves the story to try and deconstruct it or simplify it.
HP: It will interesting to see what happens now that Jesse is re-opening the case to protest his innocence on the basis of your film’s evidence. I assume that you will be called to trial, rather like Nick Broomfield in Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer…
AJ: Probably so. I imagine that everybody on one side of the case is going to say that the film is ultimately biased towards the benefit of the Friedmans and people on the other side will say that the film isn’t sympathetic enough to the Friedmans. That’s already happened. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. I don’t have very high hopes for Jesse getting a new hearing in Long Island though. That community is very firmly behind the original verdict of the case.
HP: They’re not interested in bringing it all up again?
AK: Exactly. Also, they’ve got a district attorney in that county that says on his website that they’re very proud to have a 98.3% conviction rate for felonies. I don’t know any statistic that I’ve seen that comes close to 98% for people that were accused of felonies that turn out to have committed them.
HP: That’s potentially a whole new documentary isn’t it? The story of what will happen to Jesse now…
HP: Are you interested in following that?
AJ: It’s not for me. It may be that someone else will go and do it.
HP: Who would you say have been your influences in terms of your filmmaking style, either fiction or non-fiction, and also thematically in the representation of the family?
AJ: From the standpoint of documentary filmmakers I like the Maysles brothers. Albert actually shot a day on the Clown documentary that I started out making. I like the fact that they stay out of the way of their subjects and let things happen. That was an important lesson for me in the this film because every time I tried to construct something thinking, ‘well, maybe I should meet with so and so in this setting or have this in the background’, usually something else, something natural, would emerge that was a lot better than my original idea. So soon I learnt to stop trying to make things happen and let them be. There are a lot of filmmakers I have a lot of admiration for. I like the Coen brothers a lot. I love the matter of fact quality of their very strange characters. There are certain elements that are probably similar because they do the most unusual things in the most matter of fact way.
HP: There’s a lot of black comedy in Capturing the Friedmans but it’s isn’t negative. People are never presented as unintelligent, for instance, which would be very easy to do.
AJ: That’s right. It’s so easy to take pot shots at people. Whether you think these people are guilty or innocent you can see that they didn’t get much of a break and the system certainly wasn’t organised to look out for their rights much either. I think it does a disservice to everybody that the case was so poorly prosecuted. I actually heard someone say that because the film raises some questions about how the case was prosecuted it’s going to silence the plaintive voices of people who’ve been abused and will make them think they won’t be believed. I think what’s much more likely to silence such people are poorly prosecuted cases that result in people saying, ‘You know, those cases always turn out to be false’. I think police work has to be extremely methodical. It’s bad for everybody when you don’t follow the rules because later you end up in a situation where you don’t have any way of arriving at the truth or anything that’s close to it.
HP: The people that have already given their testimonies could then find it very hard to come back and admit that procedure may have been wrong.
HP: It’s interesting that the people in the film were considered to be outcasts in the community if they hadn’t gone through the abuse process.
AJ: And since the film has come out some people who were alleged victims in the case have said, anonymously again, ‘Well these things still happened’, as if that’s a revelation. It’s not a revelation. Once they’ve committed in front of a court why are they going to change their position? Either they were abused as children in which case they remembered it properly and described it to a grand jury or they weren’t abused as children and they were encouraged to believe that they were and then they described it to a grand jury. Either way, they think it happened. Implanted memories are as real for somebody as actual ones.
HP: If not more so.
AJ: Yes, because sometimes they’ve been established with greater repetition.
HP: Going back to the representation of family, Elaine, the mother made me think of Ordinary People and the Mary Tyler Moore character, the cold mother who doesn’t behave in the way she ‘should’ by nurturing the children. She really comes off as the bad guy in it; how was it, dealing with her?
AJ: People have really conflicting views about Elaine. I was sympathetic to her because I felt that her kids has been so awful to her for so long that it’s hard to understand how her kids don’t have any sense of compassion for what she went through. Not only did she lose her family, her house and her life, but she was also married to a guy for 30 years who turned out to have led her down a path. You could argue, ‘Well, Elaine admits that it wasn’t Arnold’s idea to get married, that she pushed Arnold, that she can be very persuasive.’ But in the end she had a life of 30 years living with this man that turned out to be a liar in a lot of ways. She was incredibly hurt by that and these boys don’t seem to accept that. They don’t give her any credit for that. How upset she was, how betrayed she felt. And the boys say ‘Let’s get over it. Yeah okay, he was a paedophile, we accept that. Now, let’s move on to the important stuff.’ Well, that was the important thing for her. She was prepared to defend her husband, even for his bad behaviour, provided that he at least would share his real innermost thoughts with her. So, one day when she finds out he’s admitted to this one boy and then later when he admits in therapy to another boy, she felt really betrayed.
HP: It’s also about intimacy and jealousy, right? Because the sons always side with him and she’s the familial outcast.
HP: And Seth? Did you find it difficult that he didn’t want to contribute to the film? Was he a piece of the jigsaw that was missing?
AJ: I think you’d miss Seth less if it was a film where we didn’t have this incredible level of access. Most films you say, ‘This is the story of people in the Civil War and we have four people who were there who are going to tell us about it’. Well here we have almost everyone that was in the Civil War talking about it. So we’re surprised when we’re missing one of them. I understand why he didn’t want to be in the film. He’s probably the most hostile about what took place. He feels more strongly than David and Jesse even, that it was an organised conspiracy against the family, that the police and judge were talking, that everybody was in it together. He may very well be right. There’s some evidence to suggest that he was right. He’s got a family now and at one point he said he thought his daughter would be taken away from him.
HP: And have you had any reactions from audiences that you didn’t expect to have?
AJ: I was surprised by the strength of audience reaction right off the bat. When the movie opened in New York I got a phone call from the distributor who said, ‘There’s a problem at the theatre. You need to go down there.’ So, I went down there to talk to the manager and I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ And he said, ‘The people aren’t going. And I said, ‘They’re not going to the movie?’ And he said, ‘No, there’s plenty of people but they’re not going home at the end so I can’t clean the theatre, get in between the seats to get the popcorn out.’ And I said, ‘What are they doing?’ And he said, ‘Just sitting in their seats and they’re having discussions, sometimes arguments. Sometimes they’re loud arguments. They’re arguing with people they didn’t even come with.’ I thought, ‘Great, that’s the whole point of the cinema. The experience of seeing it with a group of people is different.’ In fact, when I started to do discussions with audiences, people started to say, ‘Well, obviously, this family is innocent and totally railroaded by the system and somebody at the other side of the cinema would pop up and say, ‘Hold on a second, don’t speak for me, I have a whole different opinion’.