Silly Billy was a clown. Andrew Jarecki was interested.
Who do you believe?
Years ago, Jarecki had started Moviefone and thus, having time and money to spare, he came about the idea of making a documentary feature about children's entertainers – particularly Silly Billy. What was the story behind those painted faces? The story in this case was far more than he had expected, as it turned out that Silly Billy's real name was David Friedman.
In 1987 David Friedman had brought himself a video camera, and his father, Arnold Friedman, and brother Jesse had been arrested on over 100 counts of child sexual abuse. The resulting fall-out within the family was all stored away on David's home videos, him never thinking it would ever been seen by anyone else, let alone be shown publicly and make over $3 million dollars at the American box office.
As Jarecki began to find out more about the story behind his clown David, it seemed only natural to him to instead make a documentary about the harrowing events involving the entire Friedman family. As he spoke to David he managed to convince him to show him some of the video tapes he had made at his home when he was younger. Watching the drama unfold in front of him and beginning to dig into the history of the case, Jarecki became more and more intrigued – as it became very apparent that nothing was quite what it seemed.
He managed to get interviews with all the other Friedman family members, except for the youngest son Seth, who refused to be involved, although he is often seen on the home tapes. Jarecki also spoke to many of the children and the parents who were involved in the scandal as well as the relevant police officers and prosecutors.
What is finally presented to the audience in Capturing the Friedmans is a haunting and dramatic documentary made up mostly of David's home videos and past and present interviews with those involved. The information and the so called facts of the case are presented in little fragments, showing us only small pieces at a time, which tends to create a feeling that the audience is never quite getting the full picture. It's unsettling to watch, but hugely intriguing and compelling viewing.
When the film was released, Jarecki's 'even-handedness' in the representation of both sides garnered him both praise and criticism. When the case first came to the publics attention in 1987 it wasn't long before the media was saturated with lurid stories and as is always the case with such crimes, emotions ran high. However there were more than a few doubts as to the validity of the accusations against Arnold and Jesse and the methods used in the case by those who enforce the law.
The story goes like this.
In 1987 the US government began to investigate the Friedman family, who lived in Great Neck, New York on the north shore of Long Island. Arnold Friedman was a respected and well liked school teacher with a wife and three sons of his own – however – he was caught ordering a pederastic magazine from Denmark. Shortly after this, his home was raided by police where all they found was a small stash of similar magazines hidden behind the family piano. The family were questioned and it came to light that Arnold and his eldest son Jesse held computer classes for neighbourhood boys in the basement of their house. Before anyone could say panic all the families in the neighbourhood were being extensively questioned.
It was then that the stories began to emerge. Tales of ritual rape, bare bottomed leap-frog 'games' and sexual humiliation and degradation were revealed to the investigating officers by many of the young boys who had gone to the so called computer classes. Arnold and Jesse were arrested among a massive media frenzy. As the trial progressed and more and more charges piled up against the two, they eventually pleaded guilty to the crimes and were sentenced to prison.
Yet that is just the bare-bones of what happened, there was a lot more to the case and the conviction. No physical evidence of abuse, sexual or otherwise, was ever found and no hint of anything had ever been mentioned before the large-scale investigation began. When Jarecki began to re-investigate the case for his film the discrepancies became obvious and much new evidence was brought to light.
In the film you see the police files of the original raid, in which the photos show nothing but the small pile of above mentioned magazines, yet at the same time you hear the voice of one of the police woman testifying that 'the house was filled with pornographic materials of all kinds'. Many of the boys admit to having no memories of the events until they underwent hypnosis – a process that is notorious for introduction of false memories.
In the theatrical version of the movie Jarecki left out much of the evidence he had found which seemed to support the view that the Friedmans were in fact innocent, and the film leaves you with no clear answer. Jarecki stated that he 'was not Michael Moore' nor a Debbie Nathan type and that he did not want this to be seen as a plea one way or the other for the case. He did not want to stir the pot – merely to make a record of what had happened. With the release of the DVD even more criticism was laid against him as it contained reams of new material that seemed to strengthen the Friedman's case even further and many stated that they thought he should have used it to help have the 'obviously false' charges overturned.
Even without the hypnosis, the case for the Friedmans can begin to sound convincing to some when hearing things like the fact that some of the police detectives admitted that they has provided 'incentives' for the children to encourage them to give testimony – including having pizza parties and offering to 'deputize' the most co-operative children. In one case a group of police officers were questioning a child who was sure that nothing had ever happened to him and that he enjoyed the classes. The police then told him that when something like this happens to a chid they have 'a big monster inside them' and that if they don't tell someone they 'will grow up to be a homosexual'.
Once child who was insisting that nothing happened was visited on 15 occasions by an officer and on the last time his mother was told to leave the room. After this, the officer told the boys' mother that he didn't like her sons' attitude and he was heading for trouble. The boy then provided testimony against Jesse and Arnold. After the case many of the boys admitted they had provided false testimony to 'end the questioning' and that they actually hadn't experienced anything that they had talked about.
However all this was not helped by the fact that Arnold was indeed a paedophile, he admitted that on an earlier occasion he had molested two boys near the families summer home and that he had done similar things to his own younger brother when they were smaller. Yet he insisted that nothing had ever happened in Great Neck.
Who do you believe?
Watching the film and the exploring the DVD leaves you with a very strange feeling. It is such an intimate portrait of a family being torn apart, as David is constantly filming and asking his family to look into the camera and to tell him how they feel. Throughout the film you watch as the family just disintegrates before the eyes of David's camera. In one of the most awful moments there is nothing on the screen but rolling cassette reels as you hear the Friedmans having a huge dinner time argument as the sons seem to despise the mother for not standing by Arnold during the case. Other times, you often hear the family telling him to turn it of, yet you keep watching.
It's an intrusive, voyeuristic experience but one that is so compelling you can't help but be fascinated as you watch. Ultimately, to get even a vague idea of which way you lean, you'd have to explore it for yourself, it's so personal and filled with such a tragic and brooding atmosphere that it seems impossible to separate the truths from the stories from the half-lies. Because the film is so suggestive and brutal (with a stirring score by Andrea Morricone), you can't just sit and watch it and then walk away, it leaves you mulling over it for days, always uncertain about even your own thoughts on the matter.
When the film was done, Jarecki seemed to have uncovered so much that the case was brought into the spot-light again, always with two opposing camps who had become involved in the case with the advent of the movie. It was produced and released by Magnolia Pictures and opened in the states on May 30th, 2003 in just 3 theatres, but by its eighth week was showing in 78 cinemas across America. It also went on to be nominated in the Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars and won the 2003 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as 13 others at festivals around the world. The DVD has become very popular and contains much more to view and put in a case file than the film, making it something of a tool for those advocating the release of Jesse in particular. It contains access to so many pertinent documents and enough uncut footage to show that even if you think Arnold is guilty, the case was surely on shaky ground.
Although it appears that nothing will ever be that certain about the Friedman case, what can be sure is that the film provides an important and clear illustration of the fallibility of memories and the uncertain nature of 'facts' – especially in cases involving children and it highlights the need for rationality, thoughtfulness and care. It's a testament to the power of the media and social and law enforcement pressures in cases where the facts become uncertain and you are left wondering just were the truth lies.
Who do you believe?
The official site: http://www.capturingthefriedmans.com/main.html
Jesse was sentenced to 6-18 years in prison, he served 13 and is now trying to overturn the ruling – more about him and the case can be found at http://freejesse.net