If there was ever a real-life counterpart to sex, lies and videotape, then Andrew Jarecki’s harrowing and mysterious Capturing the Friedmans is it. Jarecki’s Sundance Grand Jury prize winner charts the destruction of the Friedmans of Great Neck, Long Island, a family that documented itself obsessively on Super-8 film and videotape. This footage forms the backbone of Jarecki’s sensational film, an instant classic that should occupy space alongside such critical and commercial documentary hits as Bowling for Columbine, Crumb and (especially) The Thin Blue Line.

With this film, the 40-year-old Jarecki is off to his second slam-bang career debut. After graduating from Princeton in 1985, where he directed plays, he wrote and directed a short film that played at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival (then known as the U.S. Film Festival). Around that time, Jarecki’s life took an unexpected turn when he thought of a solution to cutting through the clogged information telephone lines of movie theaters in large cities. A light clicked on and the now-ubiquitous feature of big city filmgoing, MovieFone, was born. As Jarecki put it in a recent telephone interview, “There went the next 10 years.”

After selling his MovieFone stake in 1998 to America Online for a life-sustaining sum of money, Jarecki returned to filmmaking and embarked on a documentary about New York’s birthday party clowns. In the course of his project, he encountered David Friedman, a clown who works under the name “Silly Billy.” (A credit at the end of Friedmans avers that David Friedman is New York’s top clown. Jarecki says that the appellation is entirely serious: “He’s the number one guy by a mile. The other clowns have him up on a pedestal.”)

In the course of his dealings with Friedman, Jarecki observed a deep reservoir of rage and asked him about it. Friedman was evasive, but he dropped hints. “He said, ‘You’re a smart guy, you figure it out,’” says Jarecki. “So I did.”

Here follows a short conversation with Jarecki about the Friedmans and the film.

The Independent: Before the Sundance premiere, did you know you had a hit on your hands?

Andrew Jarecki: You know, all I knew at that point was that I felt very happy about the way the film looked. I felt like we’ve had enough time to make this, with no apologies. If people don’t like it, I’m not going to say I didn’t do my best.

It was interesting that American Splendor [a biopic of the cult comic book artist Harvey Pekar that is due out this fall] got the top prize at Sundance for fiction films and that film in many respects was like a documentary. Your film, of course, is a documentary in the strict sense. But you laid out your narrative in a very careful way, like a well-told story.

Definitely. I’d like to mention my editor here, Richard Hankin. He’s just extremely talented. We talked a lot about how to get out this information. On the one hand, the case itself is obviously an important part of the film but it’s not the most important part of the film. For me the film is about the family.

There is so much in the case you have to understand and explain, there are so many twists and turns. There was so much information to convey, and we tried to do it by layering it on. We felt that if we gave too much information at any one time it was going to be overwhelming. Also, there was a certain lyrical quality that was there, and I felt like I didn’t want to lose that. That’s partly why I chose an orchestral score, done by Andrea Morricone [son of Ennio] who I have tremendous respect for.

Did you ever finish the clown film?

No, but the material is really interesting. Some of it will be on the Capturing the Friedmans DVD.

Have there been any developments since the film came out?

That’s an interesting question. Definitely, people have come forward and said to me–people from Great Neck–have said things like, “My son went to Arnold Friedman’s computer class and I don’t think anything happened.” But you never know.

What about Jesse Friedman?

His life is really screwed up right now. [After he got out of prison] he was classified as a level-3 offender–

Which is the worst?

Yes, he’s considered a “violent sexual predator” and this classification comes with tremendous restrictions. For example, he has to wear a monitoring device around his ankle at all times. He can’t go to the park, he can’t be around children. He can’t live in a building where there are children present. He had to find a building with no children, but then [under the notification required by “Megan’s Law”] the co-op board got a letter from the state saying, ‘Just want to let you know that you’ve got a violent sexual predator in your building.’ So, of course, he was evicted and he ended up in a homeless shelter for a while. [For more on Jesse Friedman’s self-exculpation efforts, see www.freejesse.net.]

There’s so much ambiguity in the film. For example, Peter Panaro, Jesse’s lawyer, makes a couple of shocking assertions late in the film. As a viewer, I wasn’t sure how to assess Panaro’s credibility.

One way to assess Panaro’s credibility is to consider how freely he talks about his client. He has a rather loose interpretation of attorney-client privilege. There’s something suspect about people who offer too much information. Jesse, on the other hand, was very direct, and everything he said checked out.

How important is objectivity? You’ve caught some flak for filming one of the accusers sprawled out on a sofa in the dark, creating a fairly sordid impression.

I put that student in an upright position, in shadow. I told him to make himself comfortable. I went back to the viewfinder and couldn’t see him. He had slid down on the couch. I told him that I thought it would be better if he sat up, but he wanted to stay down on the couch. So I had to film him like that.

Do you have any interest in making fiction films?

I’m interested in anything that’s interesting. Reality is usually what’s most interesting. EndBlock