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JARECKI, ANDREW: CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS - THE CLOWN'S SECRET

Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki set out to make a film about professional children’s party clowns in New York. After months of interviewing David Friedman, the most successful of these clowns, Jarecki discovered the secret story of the Friedmans – two of whom had been charged with child sexual abuse. David Freidman, one of the sons of the indicted father, decided to help tell the story - supported by extraordinary home videos. Jarecki takes a FAQ on his film.

Was there one moment that led you to want to take what eventually became a three year journey to make this film?
A few years ago, before I really understood the depth of the Friedman story, I first interviewed Elaine Friedman, the mother of the family. At one point I had asked her a question, and she drifted off for a moment, sort of lost in a memory. Then she stopped herself, saying: "I don't know. I .. I can't say too much about it. We were a family." The idea of a woman in her 70s speaking about her own family in the past tense, was strikingly sad. I didn't know how this family had ceased to be a family, but I was determined to understand it. It was that phrase "We were a family" that stayed with me and drove me to do the work, to learn the story, to spend time with the family and get to know them.

What would you say the film is about?
The Friedman family - a mother, father, and three boys - have a seemingly normal existence, growing up on the north shore of Long Island; an affluent suburb of New York City. The day before Thanksgiving in 1987, the kids have come home for the holidays and the family is getting ready for dinner. Suddenly, the front door is shattered by a battering ram, and the house fills with police, who begin searching and boxing up the family's possessions. They go on to arrest almost everybody. And that's where our story starts. So on a literal level, Capturing the Friedmans is the story of a family, and we follow their history and experience through some extremely unusual territory. The crime described is the centerpiece of the film in that it drives the behaviour of the family, and of the community. On a philosophical level, the film is about the elusive nature of truth; how our memories evolve over time to suit our needs; memories of our family; memories of our parents; memories of things we've done or felt we had to do in our lives or our work. It's also about
the nature of family and of society; what we owe each other as members of a family and of
a community.

Sounds like a very unusual family. Is it?
In a way it is, but what is most surprising is how similar families are. People who see the film are at times tempted to say, "That is the most screwed up family I've ever seen," But, then after they get past the more salacious elements of the story and have a chance to reflect on it, they usually add something like "but you know, that one character really reminded me of someone in my family.” Whenever we see something disturbing in a non-fiction film, we have a tendency to want to distance ourselves from it -to objectify the people in it and think of them as one-dimensional creatures who have nothing in common with us, That lets us off the hook and keeps us from feeling like we have to examine ourselves, I hope that by seeing this family up close -and particularly through the home movies that are integrated throughout the film -we'll come to understand them, Whether or not we like them or agree with them, we'll see them as people with whom we have certain things in common. 

You mention the home movies that are used in the film. We all take home movies or videos of our families. How are these home movies different?
The first difference is the kind of material they chose to capture the film. While most families use home movies just to document special happy celebrations like birthdays, this family never turned the camera off - even after the police showed up and their lives began to change forever. They filmed their most intimate moments - their most intense and private moments. Another major difference is how much of their lives they filmed. Starting with 8 millimeter films shot three generations ago, the family documented itself incessantly. And much of the most important material was shot in the late 80s, when hand-held video cameras were just beginning to come into wider use, so the Friedmans were really ahead of the curve in terms of what later became an American obsession with wanting to see ourselves on film. 

On that note, it sounds like you are describing a sort of tragic version of The Osbournes. Did the family's own filming presage our culture's obsession with self-documentation?
Today nearly everyone has a miniature video camera, and we record much more of what happens in our lives, The Friedmans started doing it before any of us, and seeing their story unfold from inside the family provides a level of intimacy that hasn't really been present in films in the past,

As for The Osbournes, there's an element of that, but that family always knew they were making a television show. The Friedmans didn't know that one day there would be a film about them; but I think they had the presence of mind to know that one day they would want to tell their story.

Is there any concern when you are watching material shot by your subjects, that they might have been acting up for the camera? That what you are seeing might not be completely real?
I understand the concern, but in this case, I don't see it as an issue. It's not that they turned the camera on for five minutes and everybody changed their behaviour when they knew they were being watched. Here, the camera was on perpetually. It was on during their Passover Seder, it was on when they were driving in the car and at the supermarket. When the camera is there all the time as it was here, it disappears and becomes a part of the family process.

Most families faced with an incredible crisis would drop everything and just focus on how to resolve it. But the Friedmans took the time to record their own activities and responses. What made them do that?
I think they understood that the story might be very hard for them or others to understand in the years to come. It all happened so fast that they didn't have time to really grasp the process as it was unfolding. David, the eldest son, had just gotten a video camera and, as someone in the film says, he just started "recording the family falling apart." At one point, David says "You know, maybe I started making the video tape so I wouldn't have to remember it myself ." That gives you a sense of the role of the video camera. In this family, the camera was almost another family member. It was a participant. It was present all the time. At the same time, they had a keen sense of the strangeness of the story, and I think their oddball sense of humour allowed them, on some level, to appreciate the spectacle of themselves.

How did you first learn about the existence of the home movies?
I had been working on the film for a long time. At one point David said to me, "Look, if you end up really wanting to make a film about this, I should tell you I have hours and hours of home movies of my family that all come from before these traumatic events. And then, actually I have lots more footage documenting what happened afterward." I was amazed.

Why did the family wait so long to tell their story?
I think it was a story they had wanted and even needed to tell for a long time, but hadn't really known where to begin. They needed distance, years to gain some perspective. And they also knew that telling the story too early could be dangerous for them, since the events described in the story didn't end, even to this day. 

Why do you think after all these years of keeping the story secret, they began to open up about it? Why do you feel they were willing to share their story with you and how did you approach that responsibility?
Some of the family members have never really been able to get their lives back to normal, and I think telling the story is necessary to accomplishing that. Maybe I came along at the right moment for them. I think the family members had the sense that I would tell the story in a respectful and compassionate way. And that I was willing to do the work to understand the story, which is really complex. As the family saw us really take the time to investigate the case, their comfort level increased. We came to understand things about the case that the family had never known. That also helped the relationship develop. I think letting someone make a film about you is fundamentally about trust. It's about feeling that the filmmaker doesn't mean you harm and is going to deal with you fairly. In this case, I hoped and I think the family never felt that our interests were to paint an ugly picture of them. That wasn't my interest intellectually.

Did everyone in the family agree on the basic facts?
Not at all. I've spoken to just about everybody who's a living member of the family and never gotten the same story twice. Everyone has a different recollection. At one point in the film, Elaine says “People's visions are distorted.”. Everyone has an agenda that colours their perceptions. That goes for the family and for the other subjects of the film. This dramatically influences how you remember things. In some way, there's no objective truth there.

How did you grapple with that in trying to represent what happened?
As you're going through the process of making a film like this, you are creating a bit of a mosaic. You have this little piece which really drives home a particular point. And then, you have this other piece that counteracts that original piece, and you have to decide how and whether to include each. My feeling is that at the end, you don't need to include every piece of the mosaic in order to be true to the story; the important thing is to be sure that the finished mosaic approximates the right colour. 'You sit there with your editor thinking, "I really want to use this thing. But is it really fair? Am I also giving this person the opportunity to explain why they were so nuts at that particular moment that they said that thing?" And so you go back in and you find the other thing that perhaps explains it a bit better. And you try to balance those things. It's always a challenge to figure out which elements of what someone said will achieve the most truthful colour for their character. Here, I think we took the time to reach a balance that I felt very happy and comfortable with.

What most surprised you about making the film?
Well, it is remarkable how eloquently everyone tells their version of the story. Not just the family members, who are smart and articulate, but also the police, the detectives, the district attorney, the postal inspector, the Judge - I found everyone fascinating to listen to. And what was most surprising was that even though everyone brought their significant intelligence to bear in telling their version, still no one could agree on anything. 

Capturing The Friedmans – Australian release March 25, 2004

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