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Capturing The Friedmans

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When Andrew Jarecki's extraordinary documentary Capturing The Friedmans ends–after miles of home video and testimonials from family members, lawyers, investigators, journalists, and alleged victims–the truth of what really happened behind closed doors remains more elusive than ever. With every shocking revelation comes another mountain of ambiguities, until the film becomes a disquieting meditation on the nature of truth itself, and what people can claim to know about each other or themselves. As with many great documentaries, the story surfaced by accident: Initially interested in children's performers, Jarecki came across the proverbial sad clown in David Friedman, the eldest of three sons in a middle-class family that was the focus of a notorious sexual-abuse case in the late '80s. In a scandal that shook the affluent Long Island community of Great Neck, David's father Arnold and his youngest brother Jesse were charged with dozens of counts of child rape and molestation related to a computer class they taught in the family's rec room. The crimes are as outrageous as they are heinous, with lurid accounts of sexually suggestive computer games, stacks of imported kiddie porn in plain sight, a back room where boys were taken to be sodomized, and even such unlikely horrors as Arnold wielding a knife in front of his class or playing a sadistic variation on leapfrog with his son. Amid all the public hysteria, certain practical questions were overlooked: How, for example, could the kids have greeted their parents immediately after class without any indication that something had happened? (Many even re-enrolled.) Was their testimony coerced by the authorities, who won convictions based on no physical evidence? But beyond the mere facts of the case, Capturing The Friedmans focuses on the painful dissolution of the family, documented in startling totality by David's ever-present video camera, which, in his mind, recorded his past so that he wouldn't have to remember it himself. As the men in the family square off against his mother Elaine, who convinced her husband to plead guilty in order to save their son, David's camera becomes its own character, at once invasive, voyeuristic, and accusatory, presenting the drama like a radical performance piece. First-time director Jarecki, better known as the co-founder of MovieFone, skillfully integrates the home-movie footage with his own thorough inquiry, weaving past and present into a patient, deeply engrossing piece of storytelling that's rich in ambiguities. Like an Atom Egoyan movie come to life, or the other side of the Louds in PBS' 1973 documentary series An American Family, Capturing The Friedmans looks at a suburban clan through the prism of the video age, where the truth isn't as clear as it looks from the camera's eye.