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June 23, 2003


This weekend, we went to

This weekend, we went to see Capturing the Friedmans, the documentary about the Long Island teacher and his son who were charged with the sexual abuse of neighborhood kids in the late 1980s.

It is a difficult movie to watch. As the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that there are no completely trustworthy or even sympathetic characters in the film, and it lacks a moral center. The effect of this is wearying and slightly sickening, since the subject matter, in itself, is so disturbing. Each person in the film is a case study in neurosis: what happens when you conceal agonizing levels of desire and frustration? You eventually tear yourself and your family apart, apparently.

The film differs from other documentaries in that so much of the primary footage was shot by the subjects of the films themselves. The Friedmans, it is safe to say, were obsessed with documenting the most intimate aspects of their lives on video. Not just family dinners and happy moments, but family meetings, impromptu brawls, a brutal "video diary", and heartbreaking moments at crucial turning points in their lives. One of the family members admits that he can only remember certain things through seeing them on video -- he doesn't directly remember them happening. This is perhaps the only suggestion in the film that the family actually went back and watched their archival footage of their family destroying itself -- and yet, insistently and compulsively, they filmed everything. Why? Is it a sort of reverse logic that since happy people videotape happy moments, if you videotape a moment, it will be a happy one? Or did they inherit the obsession with watching from their father, who first gets into trouble because of his taste for illegal pornography?

Indeed, a large part of the film documents the son's sanctification of their father, and the latter half of the movie reveals a family in almost complete denial of its own nature. As things collapsed, only the mother seemed willing to admit what had happened, and she was ostracized by her sons as she "abandoned" their father. It's easier, apparently, to accuse your mother of abandoning your dad than it is to accept the possibility that your father is attracted to little boys.

Stylistically, the documentary has some problems. Interstitial shots of the Friedman's town seem unnecessary, inconsistent, and distract from the mood. I think they were intended to give the audience a chance to breathe, but they also seemed to make a silent commentary on the notion that things are not always as they seem in tight-knit communities. We know. Also, the narrative is at times choppy and poorly constructed: the transition of the case from an issue of pornograpy to abuse happens too quickly and without sufficient explanation, and the story of the case against the son seems to come out of nowhere. The Friedmans suffered from a lack of evidence contrary to the accusations against them, and the filmmakers, in a way, continue that predicament: out of the presumably dozens of students involved with the Friedmans, they only manage to track down one person who will say on camera that the charges were preposterous. One or two others suggest it off-camera. And yet the overall tone of the film is one of uncertainty: "Did they or didn't they?" it seems to constantly ask. Although they did not have a moral responsibility to do so, it seems the filmmakers could have found more people who, all these years later, would have recanted. Did they try? I don't know. Did they want to? If the goal of the film is depicting uncertainty, rather than uncovering the truth, it seems they might have made the right decision.

There are many other layers of the film that I haven't had a chance to discuss here: the effect of childhood trauma on your adult identity, the dynamics of a Jewish family in crisis, and the nature of sexuality. Overall, the film is disturbingly successful at documenting all of these, along with the destruction of a family and the long-term consequences for each family member.

posted by adm at 4:31 PM | #


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