Capturing the Friedmans, 107 mins, opening in cinemas nationwide on 1 April 2004

What are the rights of a pedophile?

This is one of the many questions posed by the documentary film Capturing the Friedmans, the debut feature of Andrew Jarecki.  The film tells the story of the Friedman family of Great Neck, Long Island, New York State.  The Friedmans appear to be a typical upper middle class Jewish family.  The patriarch, Arnold, was a highly respected, award-winning, high school teacher of maths and music.  He had a wife, Elaine, and three sons who idolised him.  They loved to make home movies about their holidays and other family fun.

Their lives were shattered one day in 1987 when police raided the Friedman home, based on evidence obtained over a three-year investigation by federal postal authorities.  In 1984  Arnold had ordered a child pornography magazine  from the Netherlands.  A postal inspector then pretended to be a pedophile and wrote letters to Arnold, trying to convince him to share pornography with him.  Eventually Arnold did.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1987 police raided the Friedman home and found child pornography magazines hidden in Arnold’s basement study.  Then the federal police told the Nassau county police that Arnold also gave computer lessons to children in his home.  The enrolment list was produced and the police started interviewing the children.  A few weeks later both Arnold, and his youngest son Jesse, who had helped out with the computer classes, were arrested on charges of child molesting.

Director Jarecki stumbled on this story when he interviewed elder son David Friedman, who works as “Silly Billy”, a children’s party clown.  Jarecki was actually making a film about Silly Billy, but when he realised the connection with the Friedman family, he changed the focus of the film.

The Friedmans had hours of Super 8 film and video tape that they were prepared to share. David Friedman recorded not only the good times, but also the bad times. He filmed clowning around, family singalongs, and arguments about guilt, innocence, loyalty and legal defence tactics.  There are intimate moments and shouting matches.  There is utter emotional meltdown.  It’s all on film.

For lawyers, this film raises many questions.  If a man is an admitted pedophile, is he an automatic suspect for child molesting?  What sort of evidence is required to launch an investigation?  What if there is no physical evidence at all?  Is an enrolment list enough to go on?  What are the ethics involved in interviewing young children in these circumstances?  How suggestible are they?  Can their memories be trusted?  Would a pedophile automatically abuse his own son?  And so on.  The film offers no easy answers, and it certainly doesn’t take a position on Arnold and Jesse’s guilt or innocence.

In addition to the home movies, there are more recent interviews with the police officers involved in the case.  The police do not inspire much confidence.  Neither do the lawyers.  But at times the family seems like its own worst enemy.

The filmmakers go back a couple of generations to investigate some statements made by Arnold indicating why he believed he became a pedophile.  It seems the death of his young sister had effects which are still being felt today.  There’s some haunting footage of this little girl dancing.  The ramifications of her death for successive generations bring to mind classical Greek tragedy.

The filmmakers jump back and forth in time, and the family resemblance makes it a little difficult to keep straight who is whom.  And as in any documentary film, the filmmakers selected the footage that made it into the final cut of the film, which means they had to exclude some potentially relevant material.  But despite all that, this is a fascinating and provocative  story, and well-told.  You’ll spend hours, as I did, debating with your friends where the truth lies and who the victims are. Capturing the Friedmans is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in crime, evidence, due process or justice.