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Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Who do you believe?

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 107 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Arnold Friedman was a suburban family man, a talented pianist, an award-winning computer teacher, a 'nebbish', a good father to three loving sons – and, after a large cache of specialist mail-order pornography was discovered in his home by the police, he was also revealed to be a closet paedophile. From interviews with all the young students listed by name on Arnold's computer, the police uncovered a monstrous story of abuse and rape perpetrated secretly for years by Arnold and his youngest son Jesse upon the boys who attended his computer classes. Although at first protesting their innocence, first Arnold and then Jesse eventually pleaded guilty in the face of overwhelming testimony. The presiding judge, Abbey Boklan, has stated, “There was never a doubt in my mind as to their guilt”. Later Arnold died of a heart attack in prison, and Jesse has now completed his sentence. Case closed.

Except that by the time you have finished watching 'Capturing the Friedmans', Andrew Jarecki's multi-faceted re-examination of this scandalous case from the late 1980s, you may be left wondering, amidst the abundance of suffocating smoke thrown up by the police investigation and trial, exactly what kind of fire was the cause of it all, if indeed there even was a fire. Interviews with all the main players, footage from the courtroom and the media, and the Friedmans' own obsessively compiled home movies (including painfully intimate coverage of the family falling apart under the strain of the trial), are all deployed by Jarecki, who plays devil's advocate for both prosecution and defence, with the viewers cast as jury – and, unlike the original open-and-shut trial, this extraordinary documentary is likely to divide public opinion right down the middle. For where most films are essentially passive experiences that pleasantly pass the time, 'Capturing the Friedmans' has a rare power to provoke viewers into thinking, arguing, and ultimately addressing their own prejudices about pornography, paedophilia and homosexuality. As such, it is, for all its quiet understatement, a devastating powder-keg of a film, which will have the same explosive effect on cinemagoers as the events which it portrays had on the Friedmans.

Although it focusses on the undoing of a deeply dysfunctional family, Jarecki's film swings the viewer this way and that like a good thriller, full of gripping revelations, diabolical ambiguity, subtle manipulation, and plenty of red herrings (ranging from the sexuality of Arnold's brother Howard, to the uncanny coincidence that the brand name of the computers on which Arnold allegedly groomed his pupils with digital porn is 'PET'). Yet in the end, far from establishing firmly whether Arnold Friedman was a guilt-ridden victim of overzealous policing and neghbourhood hysteria, or a wicked, deceitful monster, it instead inspires in the viewer something which was conspicuously absent from the original trial – reasonable doubt.

It is easy to see why 'Capturing the Friedmans' has already garnered enough awards to cover a whole mantelpiece, and is a strong contender for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. What is more difficult to understand is how, in our enlightened times, this family could have been visited by misery, shame, injustice and catastrophe of a kind not seen since Greek tragedy.

It's Got: Secrets, lies, betrayal, paedophilia, injustice, guilt, breakdown, suicide, and New Yorks Number One Birthday Clown.

It Needs: A retrial (and to stay off the kiddie porn).


Monster or victim? By switching from the public trial to the private, domestic life and family history of a convicted, and now dead, paedophile, 'Capturing the Friedmans' raises profound questions about prejudice and hysteria in our society, and about the ultimate inscrutability of the human soul in a mediated age. Quietly explosive, determinedly controversial, and bound to be a talking-point for months.