The documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” by Andrew Jarecki is one of the best documentaries I have seen because of the ambiguity factor. When creating a documentary, there are many different styles and flavors one can go with. It could be provocative, educational, or ambiguous in proving a point. “Capturing the Friedmans” revolves around the question of pedophilia and how far it went in one man’s life and to what extent it impacted his family.
Arnold Freidman was a school teacher who also taught computer classes to neighborhood children in his basement. He was also a pedophile who received child pornography through the mail from the Netherlands. Obviously, anytime it is discovered that there is a pedophile with close contact with children is troubling and warrants an investigation as to the conduct of the pedophile around the children. Freidman was charged with receiving child pornography in the mail and then charged with a number of sodomy charges that alleged to have taken place in the computer classes. He was convicted of the charges, as was his son Jesse, the subject of which the documentary seizes over the ambiguity of his guilt.
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s there was a moral panic over child sex abuse and satanic ritual abuse in the United States. Moral panics happen when a population seizes on to a certain subject which threatens social order and causes controversy and intense discussions of the particulars of the panic in order to resolve the issue. Media is key to moral panics because of the dissemination of centralized information. “Capturing the Friedmans” seeks to question the extent to which Arnold Freidman’s case was influenced by the moral panic over his pedophilia and questions if Jesse is even guilty at all. Police conduct is key in this case. Interviews with the policemen who conducted the investigation sometimes are out of sync with the facts. One detective remembers stacks of child pornography out in the open, an incorrect memory as pictures of the Friedman’s home are shown on screen. The way in which interviews were conducted is also significant. The detectives used a style that presumed that they knew what happened to the child, relayed this to the child, and waited for the child to confirm their suspicions. Psychologically, children seek to please adults. When an adult in power is saying that something happened to you and they know about it, the child may go along with this in an effort to please the adult. Child sexual abuse is investigated differently, letting children express what happened to them rather than giving them a story line to confirm or deny.
There is little to suggest Jesse’s guilt other than the confessions of the children which were guided confessions. It is questionable how having a parent who is also a pedophile effects a child. However, there is no correlation between Arnold’s pedophilia and Jesse in and of itself. Jesse’s guilty verdict is indicative of how wild this case got. The allegations against Arnold and Jesse are fantastical and absolutely horrific, tales of children being abused en mass during the computer classes in disturbing ways. Debbie Nathan, a reporter who focused on the child sex abuse moral panic, said of the allegations “the basic charges were completely implausible.. First of all you’d have to believe that blood is coming out of these childrens’ orifices, that they’re screaming that they’re crying” and that there is no evidence to suggest that this occurred as parents would regularly stop by classes as well. She also notes the significance of mass abuse cases where families bond over victimization and can cause social phenomenon that outcasts non-victims as outsiders of the community. Arnold Friedman’s case happened in a small town in downstate New York that typifies itself as normal and successful within a competitive atmosphere. People bonded over this case because of the moral panic surrounding it.
One of the brothers in the family, David, begins to record the family falling apart. These tapes are included in the documentary and give a good portrait of the inter-workings of the Friedman’s family. Elaine Friedman, Arnold’s wife, believes in Arnold’s guilt. This tears the family apart because the brothers either do not believe in the guilt of their father or they believe that he should not go to prison, it is unclear from the footage which it is. The dysfunction of Arnold’s pedophilia clearly affected the family because they did not unite in a fight against the state. The dysfunction allowed for Elaine to not support her husband in his trial over guilt or innocence. The fighting displayed in the tapes features shouting and swearing about this point of contention.
The most contentious point of the film is Jesse’s guilt or innocence. One of the detectives admitted that there was a “dearth” of physical evidence and that the case was heavily circumstantial. While Jesse did plead guilty, he did not do so out of guilt he claims but because otherwise he was facing a life sentence. This is not unheard of in the criminal justice system, someone pleading guilty to a crime they did not commit because the likelihood of being found innocent is so small. Five of the children who testified against Jesse have now recanted, as has the only adult who testified at the trial. Even a federal Court of Appeals asserted that it seems Jesse was wrongfully convicted. However, Jesse is still in prison because exoneration for a crime is a process that requires the proper channels of authority to admit wrongdoing and fix it. Authority figures usually do not like to admit wrongdoing and so Jesse’s exoneration has been stalled.
Crimes like the one Arnold Friedman committed, receiving child pornography through the mail, are and should be punishable offenses. However, the moral panic over child sexual abuse in the 1990’s heavily influenced the authorities in this case to questionably create another catastrophe when there was none. Jesse Friedman should walk a free man, and hopefully someday his case will be exonerated.