Andrew Jarecki's new documentary, I've read, started not as a journalistic exploration about a collapsing family, but as a piece about clowns who entertain children at birthday parties. Jarecki was urged by several of his original subjects to talk to fellow clown David Friedman. It turns out David's father and younger brother, Arnold and Jesse, were convicted on literally dozens of counts of sexual abuse, after years of living (along with wife and mother Elaine and middle child Seth) as a normal family in Great Neck, Long Island. Now here is Capturing the Friedmans, which, indeed, looks at not only a collapsing family but the nature of truth in a case this devastating: Even after multiple investigations and trials, it's never clear if the Friedmans are actually guilty -- or how guilty, either (we see that, at very least, a great deal of evidence has almost certainly been exaggerated or fabricated). The film raises the possibility that the Friedmans (particularly Jesse) were convicted on a wave of community outrage, rather than strict evidence -- but this is presented quietly, with relative objectivity. Nothing is clear-cut.
The elusive/murky-truth documentary has become the arthouse version of the nothing-as-it-seems thriller. Friedmans is also a cousin to the beneath-suburbia-lie-dark-secrets drama, although, as an elusive/murky-truth documentary, it's never clear how deep or dark these secrets go. To be fair, it's a fascinating film, although it could've just as easily aired on television. I don't blame Jarecki for failing to make the movie particularly "cinematic," as documentary films are often at an unfair advantage to their more widely seen, sensationalized TV counterparts. But the film is, essentially, a lengthy news report, albeit an unusually probing and multifacted one. The few stabs at cinema are poorly aimed. There are too many time-lapse shots of foliage, Long Island Railroad trains and traffic, including a long, ominous pan over what turns out to be... the Friedmans' street sign. All of the Long Island sightseeing borders on unintentional hilarity.
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