Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about a middle-class Long Island family in which two members, a father and his teenage son, are accused of sexually molesting numerous boys, honors the first rule of documentary filmmaking: Find a fascinating subject. Multi-faceted and many-layered, Friedmans tackles a real-life case that’s so complex and volatile that viewers may find themselves debating it for days afterward.

Yet Jarecki’s polished movie also takes a rather tricky tack in how it presents this subject, such that it can ultimately leave you pondering questions not only of truth, desire, pedophilia, family politics, media and the law, but also of the film’s own methods.

The subject matter here is obviously distasteful, and some may feel that they’ve been invited into a voyeuristic journey that, perhaps unintentionally, provides further evidence of our culture’s excessive fascination with the perverse and sordid. Yet for the discomforting intimacy that Friedmans offers, we mainly have the Friedmans themselves to thank, or blame. Moreso than most Americans, this five-member family (husband, wife, three sons) was obsessed with media and with documenting itself via home movies and other such devices, the result being that Jarecki draws on a wealth of information, which gives his movie’s title an ironic double meaning: The Friedmans, we see, were captured not only by the law, but also by their own images.

Even so, these images are disturbing not because the family they reveal appears odd or abnormal; on the contrary, the Friedmans look like the most ordinary suburban householders imaginable. As we watch them growing up in old 8mm footage, the three boys–oldest to youngest: David, Seth and Jesse– are high-spirited and rambunctious, constantly horsing around with each other and their dad, Arnold, a jovial, bespectacled high school teacher. Indeed, the hilarity uniting the four male Friedmans only looks a little strange when we begin to notice how it tends to exclude mom, Elaine.

The Friedmans’ life begins to unravel in the late ’80s after postal inspectors determine that Arnold has been receiving child porn in the mail. Alerted, the police authorities start interviewing kids who took the after-school computer classes that Arnold taught in his basement. The result: At Thanksgiving of 1987, not only Arnold, but his son Jesse, a teenager at the time, are arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse.

From this juncture on, the film offers two levels of fascination. One is the opening of the chasm of our own horror and suspicion: Is it possible that a seemingly normal father and son could have engaged in such a malevolent and profuse orgy of abuse? It seems almost incomprehensible, yet we are forced to imagine it. The other level of drama, meanwhile, lies in observing how the Friedmans react to their nightmare.

Not surprisingly, they experience an extended family meltdown, one that we are bizarrely privy to due to video and audio tapes made by members of the family at the time. In some of these, we hear the Friedmans arguing bitterly among themselves. The crux of the screaming sessions, though, is not Arnold and Jesse’s culpability; their innocence is taken for granted. Rather, the other sons, David especially, are furious at their mom for what they perceive as her insufficient support of their father. The male-bonding aspects of the Friedmans’ pre-crisis life thus survive into their public ordeal, and the isolated, defensive Elaine does later urge that Arnold plead guilty, in order to lessen the legal burden on Jesse.

But what do we make of the case against the two Friedmans? In Jarecki’s interviews with the authorities, it’s obvious that they are all rational, well-intended people doing what they consider best, and that they considered the Friedmans unmistakably guilty. Yet it’s also apparent that their case was spurred solely by Arnold’s possession of child porn. No aggrieved parent or child came forward to charge abuse, and there was never any physical evidence such as bloody underwear or bruises. The authorities simply decided there must be fire where there was smoke, and went out to find the evidence to back up their suspicions.

Jarecki’s interviews with the former children involved in the case do not immediately solve the puzzle. One boy, who reclines in shadow to protect his identity, calmly assures us that both Arnold and Jesse repeatedly raped himself and other boys. Other kids, however, pooh-pooh such accounts, and lead us to surmise that the authorities coaxed these lurid tales out of their young witnesses through suggestion and leading questions.

Is it possible that both those who accuse the Friedmans and those who deny the accusations are testifying truthfully and accurately? We are led along by what seems to be a tantalizing mystery, and this is where my problems with Capturing the Friedmans begin. The mystery, it seems to me, is a rather self-serving dramatic construct that depends on a crucial absence: a lack of historical context regarding both the issues touched on here and the way they’ve been treated by the media.

In point of fact, America in the 1980s underwent a persecutory mass hysteria akin to the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s. In community after community, charges of the most grotesque forms of sexual abuse were made against startled, disbelieving kindergarten owners and day care providers. As in the Friedman case, there was almost always a telling lack of real evidence in these cases. Countless innocent lives were destroyed on the basis of the testimony of children whose impressionable minds were implanted with visions of surreal Boschian horror by a cabal of manipulative child psychologists, police and prosecutors.

There was another crucial component in this diabolical fiasco: the media. Time after time, credulous reporters and editors joined the circus rather than blowing the whistle on it. Though there have been numerous articles and films since, which probe the actual nature of this mass delusion (one excellent PBS documentary covered a particularly horrendous case in Edenton, N.C.), there was no one grand expose that set things right, no Sorrow and the Pity for the great Sex Abuse Hysteria of the 1980s.

This is the context–or rather, lack thereof–that Capturing the Friedmans enters and, consciously or not, depends upon for its dramatic impact. Granted, it’s understandable why Jarecki wouldn’t want to devote part of his film to a retrospective examination of the national pandemic that included the Friedman case. Such a foray might well feel like a digression, and almost of necessity it would involve talking heads and narration, where Jarecki practices a low-key, verite-derived documentary style that eschews such traditional techniques in favor of nuance and suggestion.

The film’s approach is thus very engaging, yet it is one, I fear, in which aesthetic factors finally take precedence over clarity and a real effort to reach the truth. Of course, at a moment when the idiots of academia assure us that there is no truth and everything is mere subjectivism anyway, that lends it a fashionable aura. Yet it does little to reveal the politicized snakepit into which the victims of the ’80s hysteria were indiscriminately tossed.

And when it turns out that Arnold actually confessed to molesting a couple of boys (though not in his basement or in the ways alleged in his trial)–what then? Then, in the way Friedmans sets things up, audiences are free to be confused, or take their pick: to see the smoke as proving that there was fire all along, or merely as smoke.

Jarecki’s film is a very interesting and affecting documentary, then, but not, to my mind, a great one; it sacrifices too much finally to our desire to be entertained and shocked as opposed to enlightened. Arriving in an era when documentary seems to have taken over the authoritative role that once belonged to fictional art, it inadvertently left me wondering what an artist like Phillip Roth would have made of the same material. He would not, I think, have left us wandering so dazedly in the tantalizing twilight between truth and fantasy, documentary and fiction. EndBlock