Reviews Film

Capturing the Friedmans

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 08 April 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:901
  1. Peter Byrne, senior lecturer in psychiatry (p.byrne{at}
  1. University College London

    Directed by Andrew Jarecki, 108 minutes

    UK release date: 9 April 2004

    Rating: Embedded ImageEmbedded ImageEmbedded ImageEmbedded Image

    The past year has been a great one for feature length documentaries. It began when Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine (BMJ 2002;325: 1247), the highest-earning documentary feature of all time, won an Oscar. Spellbound, about an American spelling competition, also achieved a high profile release, as did the semi-documentaries Touching the Void, a story of mountaineers' survival in the Andes, and American Splendor, about comic book artist Harvey Pekar.

    Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about child abuse, is likely to be as successful as these. It is polemical, heart wrenching, suspenseful, at times even funny—and more. At one level, we are voyeurs to a family system where one brother audiotapes family rows and catalogues them. Fortunately for the filmmakers, his older brother went one better and “captured” it all on videotape.

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    The Friedmans, a family divided by child abuse allegations

    So far, reality television—in the shape of programmes such as Big Brother—has brought us only the image of people sitting around drinking watching people sitting around drinking. This film brings us raw (if expertly and subjectively edited) footage of a real family tearing itself apart. Although it begins with home movie footage, the film charts 15 years from around the time of the first police raid on the Friedmans' New York home, through investigation and court appearances, to aftermath.

    At the film's core come dozens of allegations of child sexual abuse against Arnold Friedman—respected maths teacher, loving husband, and father to three boys—and his son Jesse, who was then 19. Both confessed in 1988 on several counts of paedophilia.

    Director Andrew Jarecki had never intended to make a film about child abuse, but instead one about clowns. In the course of doing so, he discovered that one of his subjects, David Friedman, had another story to tell—that of his father and younger brother. Jarecki later pieced the film together using the home movie footage and interviews with family members.

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    Director Andrew Jarecki pieced film together from home movie footage

    The film is like watching a relentless, animated car crash. At the screening I was at, its all-American home video look and quirky superficiality had people talking in the early minutes. Once the reality impacted, they soon fell silent. For many people, this is as close as they are likely to get to a convicted paedophile.

    While the Friedmans are the stars of the show, they are assisted by a fascinating supporting “cast.” Once the allegations surface, we meet bungling detectives, one committed policewoman, local lynch mobs, slick lawyers, a surprising co-defendant, and, inevitably, the media.

    Any family responding to abuse allegations (true or false) against a family member would be torn apart. The Friedmans divide in front of us, and remain divided to this day. Arnold died in prison, but his brother and two of his sons are convinced of his innocence. The youngest, Seth, refused to be interviewed on film, but his captured images give him a starring role. Elaine Friedman (Arnold's wife, then ex-wife, now widow) accepted the police evidence. At first look this appeared compelling: possession of child pornography, letters, written confessions, credible witnesses, and his plea of guilty. But the on screen testimony of one unreliable witness clouds these certainties.

    The skill of the filmmakers is not just to swing our judgments like a pendulum, but to challenge why we choose to believe X and ignore the contradictory Y. The film reminds us just how terrible sex abuse is, but how false allegations can be easy to make, but true charges desperately hard to prove.

    One of my first psychiatric trainers advised me to steer clear of “psychiatric” films and television. Why relive what work puts your way? Despite more clinical experience of the physical and psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse, and more reading than I would care to have done, Capturing the Friedmans is an education, in the best sense of that word. This is a film mercifully free from the usual circus of experts. There are no psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, or other second guessers. The realities and the distress make for compelling viewing.

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