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When Neutrality Is Bad
March 1, 2004 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Derailing The Friedmans. An interesting Slate piece on the neutrality of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Capturing The Friedmans." It starts: "When a documentary filmmaker uncovers overwhelming evidence that the subject of his film was wrongly convicted, shouldn't he take a stand on the man's innocence?"
posted by adrober (22 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Reminds me of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line which helped in freeing a man from Texas death row and is in general a great documentary.

The innocence of the Friedman kid didn't seem as clear as Randall Adams in Thin Blue Line, but there definitely seemed some doubt there.
posted by xmutex at 9:21 AM on March 1, 2004


The author of the linked article seems to be under the misconception that Capturing the Friedmans is "about" the alleged sexual abuse of dozens of boys by Arnold Friedman and his son, Jesse. While those accusations and the resulting court cases are certainly prominently on display, the fact is that the film is really about the Friedman family as they slowly and painfully fall apart. That you don't "know" conclusively whether the elder Friedman did or did not abuse those kids is part of the point: neither does his wife of twenty-some-odd years. Instead, you're presented with this astonishing video record of one suburban family, torn apart almost literally before your eyes and forced to confront your own conceptions of truth and honesty and family loyalty... (I usually don't care very much, but for the first time in a long time, I felt really passionately that the Academy had awarded the Oscar to the wrong film: Fog of War is very, very good, but Capturing the Friedmans is one of those singular achievements that remains in your conscienceness long after the final frames)
posted by JollyWanker at 9:41 AM on March 1, 2004 [2 favorites]


Well put, JollyWanker. The writers seem unclear on the ethical spectrum inhabited by documentarians. For an even tougher call on the question of intervention, see Children Underground. One of the best documentaries I've ever seen.
posted by squirrel at 10:03 AM on March 1, 2004


I felt really passionately that the Academy had awarded the Oscar to the wrong film

"read two books and call me in the morning" - quonsar, MD
posted by quonsar at 10:10 AM on March 1, 2004


I was going to say something, but JollyWanker took the words out of my mouth, polished them, and put them in the correct order. Well done, JW.
posted by Ufez Jones at 10:11 AM on March 1, 2004


well that movie was about many different things, not just about the family. it was also about the subjectibility of truth, so to make a stand for either side of the case would have stripped away the ambiguity that made it really multi-diminisional.

that sounds pretensious but im not changing it.
fucking amazing movie though.
posted by klik99 at 10:49 AM on March 1, 2004


Metafilter: multi-diminisional subjectibility.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:07 AM on March 1, 2004


The funny thing about Capturing the Friedmans was that he started out making a film about birthday clowns in NYC and then discovered this one clown's whole sordid past and decided on a new film.
posted by xmutex at 11:30 AM on March 1, 2004 [1 favorite]


Of course, the victimes in the case claim that Jarecki's film is distorted in the other direction. Not really surprising ,because whether these kids were victimized or not, they almost certainly now believe that they were.

I have a strong interest in the family due to the fact that I was friendly with the Friedman family. After watching the film, I still wasn't sure about the guilt or innocence of the accused, but I was sure that the police investigation was incredibly badly handled and should never have been used to prove anything.
posted by gspira at 12:06 PM on March 1, 2004


Badly handled?

I participated in conducting forensic child sex abuse evaluations in the same time period (early 90s).

Most folks have no idea just how often people were railroaded like this, many of them still in jail, others eventually paroled to completely shattered lives. (and imagine for a moment their fate inside of prison)

It was politically incorrect in the worst way to conclude that no abuse had taken place and easy pickings for prosecutors and LEOs to slam these convictions through.

Straight outa Kafka.
posted by Fupped Duck at 12:43 PM on March 1, 2004


I'd like also to say that what Jarecki did was the right thing to do here.

A documentary that tried to shine the light on this type of gross injustice would have immediately been labled a pro-pedophilia screed and it would have never been distributed.

By taking the path of ambiguity in his film, Jarecki not only made a brilliant and compelling documentary, but also gained enough acclaim to cast away the ambiguity in DVD release to a far greater audience.

Such are the politics of Sex abuse allegations in the US and Jarecki manouvered around them in artful fashion.
posted by Fupped Duck at 12:56 PM on March 1, 2004


I just got around to seeing the film yesterday and was as impressed as everyone else. Despite the compelling arguments put forth so far on this thread, I'm still uneasy with Jarecki's ethical choices.

No problem with his aesthetic choices. Amazing twists and turns. But, while Thin Blue Line ended up convincing judges to spring the poor railroaded guy from Death Row, Capturing the Friedmans does not stir outrage in the viewer, not much, anyway.

That was the point of the film, of course, and its beauty: the way it toyed with questions of memory and reality and truth...and of course, the vision of the family, falling apart.

But I think Jarecki may have strayed over a Thin Ethical Line when he toyed with real people in order to produce an aesthetic masterpiece.
posted by kozad at 1:30 PM on March 1, 2004


Capturing the Friedmans does not stir outrage in the viewer, not much, anyway.


well, it depends

and anyway I guess you have to consider the creepout factor induced in the viewer: the Friedman men look like a pretty scary bunch in the film.
Randall Dale Adams, a guy wrongly accused of murder simply doesn't.

the most important difference between the two films is that Morris' is a whodunit. Jarecki's is not.
posted by matteo at 2:28 PM on March 1, 2004



oh, yes, and at this point even we quonsar fans have gotten pretty tired of his by-now-lame "all-movies-totally-suck" routine.
go watch Grand Illusion and Umberto D, then call me in the morning, q.
;)




posted by matteo at 2:34 PM on March 1, 2004


The author of the linked article seems to be under the misconception that Capturing the Friedmans is "about" the alleged sexual abuse of dozens of boys by Arnold Friedman and his son, Jesse. While those accusations and the resulting court cases are certainly prominently on display, the fact is that the film is really about the Friedman family as they slowly and painfully fall apart.

It amazes me that so many people seem to think the filmmaker's duty to his art trumps his duty to unjustly convicted people (if that is what they were). That kind of confusion goes a long way toward justifying quonsar's attitude.
posted by languagehat at 5:22 PM on March 1, 2004


I saw the film when it first opened, and the marketing campaign seemed to fixate on this "who is telling the truth/did they really do it" angle to sell it. One of the producers of the film was there to answer questions that the audience had about the film (and there were very many) and he wouldn't come out and say what he thought (was Jesse guilty) in front of the audience, but outside in the lobby it sounded as though he was okay with saying that there was no question in his mind (that Jesse was innocent).
posted by armacy at 5:31 PM on March 1, 2004


languagehat,

it is incorrect to confuse a documentary filmaker with a cop, a DA, or a lawyer. not to mention, it's obvious that documentary filmaking is journalism but who said that documentaries should only be about investigative journalism?

once upon a time newspapers (and, in more recent times, TV) were supposed to do that, reopen cold cases if need be. the current sorry state of American (print and electronic) journalism shouldn't be used to ask the impossible from (always badly-financed, by the way, as opposed to expense-account big media journalists) documentary filmakers.

if you think that by now there's reason to reopen the Friedman case, fine, write your congressman, call your local newspaper or tv station. and be grateful for Jarecki's work. but again, let us not burden filmakers with a weird PerryMason-like role. they're not supposed to do that, they should be reporters with a movie camera who should be able to turn out honest, well-made documentary filmaking. just that. Morris is a wonderful man, but he's not Batman. nor should be Jarecki


having said that, I think that Morris is a much better filmaker than Jarecki. Thin Blue Line is a masterpiece. Fog of War probably is, too. I don't think Jarecki's work is equally good that's all


posted by matteo at 5:42 PM on March 1, 2004


I also think that many here are criticizing Jarecki unfairly: after all he's the guy behind this film: he's proven that he's definitely not wishy-washy, nor does he seem to be afraid of kick-ass reporting. the Kissinger film is almost a prosecutor brief. but again, the Friedmans movie is not a whodunit, nor a defense attorney's brief. nor it should probably be. it's a movie about what happens when your dad is arrested as a paedophile, and there's illegal porn in the house, and your family is vaporized and covered in shame. what happens to a family then, under such extreme circumstances? that's the (very interesting, I'd say) point of the movie.

how many Nazis were arrested because of Nuit Et Brouillard? Not many, I'd say. But it's arguably the best documentary film ever.
posted by matteo at 5:56 PM on March 1, 2004 [1 favorite]



and anyway, I'm all for freeing the West Memphis Three.
I just don't think it's a documentary filmaker's job to accomplish such a goal.


posted by matteo at 6:00 PM on March 1, 2004


It amazes me that so many people seem to think the filmmaker's duty to his art trumps his duty to unjustly convicted people (if that is what they were). That kind of confusion goes a long way toward justifying quonsar's attitude.

I don't mean to snark on you too heavily, languagehat, but you're the one who seems confused. Artistic issues aside, on a purely practical level, documentary film makers have to get themselves into situations that require trust, or their footage is no good. As soon as filmmakers become an extension of either the DA or the Public Defender's Office, that trust is gone, and all they're good for is picking up the propaganda of one side or the other.

The documentary filmmakers that I admire are fueled by curiosity, and they have an ethic to entertain and consider as many perspectives as possible.

The important law-enforcement roles you mention are for others, lest the artist become merely a political tool.
posted by squirrel at 7:34 PM on March 1, 2004


I don't think anything mentioned in the article suggests anything not already apparent in the film. I came away from the movie thinking there was something seriously wrong with the prosecution and police investigation, and the one "victim" is clearly a little off in the film. There's plenty of reasonable doubt, and that is all a jury needs -- this guy seems to have wanted the filmmaker to prove innocence. I don't think you could in this case. There's still a lot
that is murky and unknowable. The father was an admitted pedophile. He had children in the basement of his home in a peculiar situation. It is possible that he molested his own son, Jesse.
It is not unknown for teenage boys who are abused to turn around and molest other children. The police version of events was manipulated and far-fetched, and the alleged victim who got the most airtime was not credible, but there are some alleged victims, not interviewed by the filmmaker, who may be more credible. In any event, the situation was less urgent in a sense than "Thin Blue Line" -- Jesse was released from prison by the end of the film. TBL sprang a guy from death row. Jesse can now work on trying to get his reputation back, which will require as much time in court as it would have had the film been aggressively advocating his side of the story.
In a way, the film would have had less credibility
if it was overtly advocating on his behalf.
posted by Slagman at 10:04 PM on March 1, 2004


I don't think I'm confused. I'm as aware as anyone of the artistic responsibilities involved in creating a film, documentary or otherwise, and I dislike "advocacy art" perhaps more than I should. I am not saying Jarecki should have made a propaganda flick, nor that he should be out there lobbying for Friedman's innocence -- that's the job of others. I was responding specifically to the idea that exculpatory material was deliberately omitted from the film to make it more balanced or exciting or whatever. If that's true, I think it's disgraceful. I have not seen the film, and I have no knowledge of the facts of the case beyond what has been discussed here.
posted by languagehat at 7:11 AM on March 2, 2004


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