“The interesting thing about family secrets is that not everyone wants to keep them a secret.” That was how Andrew Jarecki, the maker of the new documentary “Capturing the Friedmans,” described in a recent Dallas interview how a project about New York City’s children’s birthday entertainers suddenly turned into a portrait of a Long Island family’s disintegration after the father’s arrest on charges of child molestation. One of the performers he interviewed was David Friedman, a star of the clown circuit in his persona as “Silly Billy.” It was those conversations that eventually took the film in an entirely new direction.
“I started making the movie in 2000,” Jarecki explained. “And originally I interviewed about 120 professional children’s birthday party clowns. I knew David was going to be in the film, because he’s by far the most successful guy who does that. As a matter of fact, one of his competitors said to me, ‘He’s on the clown pedestal. He’s the guy to beat.’”
But Friedman proved elusive in his responses to some of Jarecki’s questions: “The more I would talk to him about his family, the more he would tell me these sort of dead-end stories that were like really clever and funny, but knowing what I know about families and how screwed up they are, it didn’t sound reasonable to me that they would be so normal. But they were like ultra-normal in his stories. And then at a certain point–well, in the film there’s that moment where he says, ‘Well, there’s a lot I could…,’ then he sort of pauses and says, ‘There are some things I don’t want to talk about.’ And that was actually the first moment that I felt there was something concrete. Before that I felt there was something more to the story, but that was the first time I felt there was something very specific. And then–the interesting thing about family secrets is that not everyone wants to keep them a secret. There’s always somebody who wants to break ranks, and in this case it was probably [David’s estranged mother] Elaine.”
At first Friedman had tried to deter Jarecki from interviewing Elaine. “He said, ‘If you interview her, she’ll tell you crazy stories that won’t make any sense.’ And I thought, ‘I’m intrigued.’” Jarecki eventually persuaded David to allow an interview by arguing that since he had called his mother crazy in material already in the can, it would be unfair to her not to include her side. “If you really think she’s crazy,” Jarecki remembered telling Friedman, “let her be in the film and be crazy.” Still, it took a trade to get David to agree. As a child, Friedman had been on an old “Candid Camera” episode, but he’d never been able to secure a copy for himself, and he assented to the interview with Elaine if Jarecki got him one.
Still there were obstacles to the truth. “David had basically sworn her to secrecy when I went to interview her,” Jarecki said. “When I talked to Elaine, it was clear she had something she wanted to say, and she just wasn’t saying it. And then she said that line, ‘I can’t say too much about it–we were a family.’ And it was that line that really struck me, because just the whole idea of this seventy-year old woman…basically talking about her family in the past tense, seemed to me very sad. Then I felt I had to try to find out what happened to the family. And then I went back to David, and I did some work on my own, and ultimately I discovered this case.” Not only had David’s father, a respected teacher and ostensibly happy husband and dad, been caught with child pornography, but in 1987 he was accused of molesting boys enrolled in his at-home computer classes; and though he denied that charge, he eventually admitted he was a pedophile and pleaded guilty to avoid a trial everyone but his sons thought he’d lose. He did so, he said, in the hope of saving his youngest son Jesse, who was being charged along with him, from jail. But ultimately Jesse, then eighteen, pleaded guilty too, and was also sent to prison.
“When I discovered what [the case] was, and how shocking it was, and how big it was at the time,” Jarecki continued, “I realized this is why David doesn’t want to talk about it. And eventually I went back to him and I said I’m changing the movie–I’m going to make this other movie. In the beginning he was really shocked that I’d figured it out, and he was upset. And I said, I’m going to tell it in a humane way, I’m not going to ambush you here. But I’m also not going to tell your version of the story, because, as you can see from the film, it’s not necessarily completely rational…Eventually he got more comfortable with the idea of me telling it. And then at a certain moment he said, ‘If you’re going to tell this other story, I should tell you that in addition to the twenty hours of home movies that my father took that I showed you at the beginning, there’s another twenty-five hours of home video that I started taking once the police showed up.’ That was the opening to that whole chapter of the film”–a searing portrait of the collapse of a family under pressure.
True to his intent to show all sides of the story, Jarecki interviewed detectives, prosecutors and the presiding judge as well as the Friedmans, Arnold’s brother Howard, and their attorneys. He also talked to specialists in the field of child abuse and some of the young men who had been in the notorious computer classes, as well as their parents. “It was one of the hardest things that I did,” Jarecki said of approaching the alleged victims and other students who denied that any molestation had occurred. “Let’s say I reached fifty or sixty of them…and then I ended up talking to twenty.” The result is an extraordinarily detailed, nuanced and objective investigation of the tragedy. “I had no idea how the movie was going to end,” Jarecki said. “At a certain point, I just said, you know, if I’ve learned anything about this movie, I’ve learned not to try to think of how I should do something–I should just try to record everything that’s going by, and something will be incredibly obvious. And it happened that Jesse was being released, David was going to meet him and he was going to visit Elaine. It was obvious that was going to be another chapter that needed to be recorded.”
It’s with these events that “Capturing the Friedmans” ends, without concluding whether Arnold and Jesse were guilty of the crime of which they were convicted or justice had really been done. But the ambiguity, Jarecki said, was essential to the even-handedness, and most viewers appreciate it: “I would say that of all the people that have reacted to the film, a very small percentage of them say, ‘I wish you had given me the answer.’ Most people say, ‘Thank you for not force-feeding me a conclusion,’ because I think most people are pretty savvy, and they’re just intuitive.”
In any event, Jarecki emphasized, the Friedman case, and his film about it, show that the truth is never clear-cut or easy to find. “That’s the point,” he said. “The point is that somebody’s perception is at odds with reality. Why resolve that?”
And he added: “It never gets resolved in real life.”