The Friedmans – mum, dad and three boys – seem a normal suburban family. But Arnold, a teacher and one-time jazz musician, likes to look at pictures of naked boys. After the postal service intercepts a magazine he’s ordered, police raid the family home. They eventually charge Arnold and his son Jesse with hundreds of counts of sodomizing boys who attended Arnold’s after-school computer classes.
Jarecki’s documentary is an engrossing study of a family in crisis – and the validity of the police investigation. It’s a one-off: the Friedmans obsessively recorded themselves on film, even after the police charges. Jarecki builds his film around their home movies and we learn a lot about them. We know early on about Arnold’s sexuality and there’s a lingering sadness about him. Yet he’s witty, often good fun, and caring – he and his sons get on very well. Jesse, faced with three consecutive life sentences, pleads guilty to get a lesser sentence but is adamant about his own innocence.
Jarecki also presents contemporary TV footage and present-day interviews – with detectives, alleged victims, lawyers and the family. The original police interviews were insistent and suggestive, and this raises questions about social perceptions of sexual orientation. Jarecki doesn’t duck Arnold’s sexual attraction for boys – but was he a rapist? Did Jesse, in turn, become an abuser and rapist? If so, he and the family members and friends who remained loyal to him are brilliant liars.
Capturing the Friedmans shows how beliefs and memories can be fallible and truth elusive, leaving you with nagging questions.