by Jon Danziger
Andrew Jarecki's debut feature, Capturing the Friedmans, has rightly earned comparisons with the films of Kurosawa, Ophuls, and Frederick Wiseman. This story of a family rent apart from without and within by charges of child molestation has been widely celebrated for its craft and its sinuous narrative; and of course a film with this kind of inflammatory subject matter will invariably have some detractors. On the occasion of its DVD release, and shortly after being nominated for an Academy Award, Jarecki spoke with dOc about the film, the menace of birthday party clowns, and his previous, more entrepreneurial public venture, as one of the founders of Moviefone, which has since been sold to AOL Time Warner. (You've selected Capturing the Friedmans!)
dOc: Let me give you full disclosure first: I grew up in Great Neck, so it was a particular revelation for me to see some of this.
Andrew Jarecki: It's actually fascinating for me because I get the feeling that there are about a million people who have either lived or grown up in Great Neck, just because the number of people who have seen the film and have responded from that insider's, Great Neck perspective is sort of shocking.
dOc: Yeah, it's Rashomon for the North Shore of Long Island. I had read the Susan Orlean piece in The New Yorker about David, I'm sure you have read that at some point? Was that an influence on you?
AJ: I had never read it, until after the film was deeply under way. And I'm really amazed to see that there was a profile on David, and I wasn't amazed to find that it only went a certain level into his life, because I think he had done a good job keeping that story away from himself. So it didn't really have an impact on me, but then when I read it, that's certainly David's outward story.
dOc: And he's sticking to it.
AJ: Yeah, and Susan Orlean, who I don't know, she's obviously a very talented person and someone who spent a decent amount of time with David. But you would have to spend many months with him before this would emerge.
dOc: On the DVD especially, the family talks about their participation as being an active means toward getting Jesse an acquittal. Did you feel that there was a mutual manipulation going on? Were you concerned about that?
AJ: No, I think that it was understood that their hope was that I would find evidence that would help them prove that they were unfairly prosecuted. And I said to them, "My job is to do the best investigation I can, and to understand the story the best that I can, and that's all I'll promise you." So there was never any understanding that they would participate if I were able to do certain things for them, and in fact they didn't see any of the film until it was finished. I thought it wasn't appropriate for them to have any hand in the making of it, the same way that I would have felt that there was no reason for the judge, or the prosecutor, or the detective...but, you know, I just felt that it was important to maintain objectivity. Which doesn't mean that I don't have compassion for various participants. I think it means that I certainly tried my best not to let that influence the telling of the story.
dOc: There seems to be a deliberate decision on your part not to draw conclusions. It's not a bit of propaganda, it's not a persuasive argument, it's not a brief for the defense or the prosecution. What were your thoughts on that?
AJ: Well, I think that in too many documentaries, I get the feeling that I'm being led around by my nose, and I think that people have pretty good noses, and they don't need to be led around by them. The average person listens to a set of facts, and has the ability to draw their own conclusions. You see a movie like Bowling for Columbine, and it's very entertaining...
dOc: But it's a bit of propaganda. In the best sense of the word.
AJ: Yeah, if there are a hundred people that see that movie, and fifty-one of them think that gun control laws should remain as they are, which is about where we are in this country, then I don't think that that film is going to convert even one of the fifty-one. So for me, even if you're trying to make a film that's designed to pursue some social change, I think that the best way to do it is to make an objective film.
dOc: Did you see this as a film designed to pursue some social change?
AJ: For me, it wasn't so much that as just trying to tell the story of the family, and let people draw from it what they would. But I also knew that it was very fertile material, and that people would draw conclusions from it. For example, I think it's impossible to see this film, even given its objectivity, and not see the primitive nature of the police investigation. And I think that that makes some people indignant, and that by itself doesn't make the Friedmans innocent; but in fact it makes it probable that they shouldn't have been prosecuted. If you're going to prosecute, you have to do it right, and it's bad for everyone when you do it wrong. I'm a father, and I have two boys who are in Arnold Friedman's target age group, and I take these issues very seriously?sexual crimes against children is a very serious business. But I think the problem is that to pursue a case in a shabby way actually denigrates the legitimate cases. It means that kids who say that they were molested suddenly aren't believed because there are so many lousy cases floating around, that people say, "Oh, those cases, you never know."
Here you have an opportunity, in this complex story, for the audience to have their own opinions. And the people that come away from the film feeling that Jesse Friedman was really mistreated are in the majority, which I don't think is a result of the film hammering away at that. I think it's the result of things like the police detective in the film telling a number of lies, which are in the film, and obvious to the audience.
dOc: There also seems to be this fierce band of those who want to do nothing but vilify the Friedmans, and take issue with you and anyone who has anything nice to say about your movie.
AJ: I think that there's always going to be a very emotional group who say that an objective film about gun control is not nearly hard enough on the NRA. And they're going to say that an objective film about abortion doesn't show enough photographs of grisly abortions. And I guess that it's the same thing here. To portray this film as if it doesn't take seriously the idea of sexual abuse of children ignores the fact that this film does things that no other film has ever done. This film shows child pornography?this film doesn't in any way shy away from the ideas that were proven by the police. But it also doesn't shy away from showing the overzealous nature of the police investigation. And showing, in fact, that the people we rely on for our information, every day, people like the senior police sergeant in charge of a case like this, are capable of telling lies. Directly.
dOc: Let me ask you about Seth. [Seth Friedman, David and Jesse's brother, declined to participate in the making of Capturing the Friedmans.] Editorially, did you come to feel that that was like the elephant in the living room?
AJ: I have to say that, from an aesthetic standpoint, I kind of liked it. I think that if the Friedmans' story were told in its absolute entirety, I'm not sure that it would be the Friedmans' story. The idea of the missing brother is kind of inevitable in some way. And actually, the only reason you probably notice that there's a missing brother is because there's such an enormous amount of cooperation from everyone else. Most films, people say, "Well, there were a hundred people involved, and the filmmakers only talked to three." Well, that's not what happened here. We talked to the judge. We talked to the lawyers. We talked to people who never talked to the camera.
dOc: But it was also clearly, at one point, anyway, such a tightly knit family, and operated as such a unit, that to not hear from one of them is sort of striking.
AJ: I understood Seth's unwillingness to participate in the film. Some people have said that Seth is the only rational Friedman, because why would you want to be in a film and describe all this sensitive material? And Seth has his own family now, he's got a daughter, and he said that he thought, at one point, that they'd take his daughter away if people associated him with the Friedmans. It's sort of hard to argue with that, but at the same time, I do feel that it would have been appropriate for him to support his brother in this. And I know that Seth certainly supports Jesse's position; he's made that clear. He's not in the background saying, "Wow, I don't want to participate because I think my father and brother were child molesters." But at the same time, he wanted out. I think his basic view was that the last time this family was in the public eye, it didn't work out so well, and he didn't see any reason to do that again.
dOc: Clowns scare my son. Clowns scare me. Do clowns scare you?
AJ: They don't scare me, but I know there is a lot of that. But they interest me, because I've always thought that there was something to that. The fact that people do appear to be scared by clowns is sort of interesting?and just the fact that clowns have a certain dark quality.
dOc: On the DVD is the film about David's life as Silly Billy. Did you cut that after Capturing the Friedmans, or was that completed?
AJ: No, I cut that after Capturing the Friedmans. I actually went back to do that as sort of our last...
dOc: It's hard not to read a viewing of the feature into that.
AJ: You know, it's funny, my editor, Richard Hankin, has started calling the clown movie the insane companion piece to Capturing the Friedmans. Because it is this kind of weird thing, but I guess my feeling is that that film had its own attitude, and it was sort of its own thing. And I felt that going back and making that, for people who had seen the film, it was going to have this other weird resonance. And I didn't spend two years on it?I just thought, this is going to be an interesting thing, given how interesting the material was, let's go back and see.
dOc: And how are Silly Billy's bookings going? Is he still the #1 clown in New York?
AJ: He still is. I don't think the film has been particularly good for his career, but it hasn't destroyed his career. And there are people who will react negatively to it?but I don't think anybody leaves the film and thinks, "Oh, David Friedman is a pedophile." I think they leave thinking David Friedman is a pretty angry guy.
dOc: That is one angry clown.
AJ: Yeah, exactly.
dOc: Would you want Silly Billy at your kids' birthday party?
AJ: I have had him at my parties, on occasion, and I have had him since the film came out, just as a way to show some support, and the fact that I certainly don't think he's not a good person to have at your house. I've had him at my house a number of times. But he's a decent guy, and he's been through an enormous amount, and I understand why he's angry. I think it's something he's got to get through.
dOc: What did you think the first time you started watching his video diary? Because there's this sense of violation, and this sense of voyeurism, that made me deeply uncomfortable. Did he show it to you with pride?
AJ: I think he showed it to me reluctantly. He thought about it for a long time. I guess I found out about the home videos from Jesse, originally. I went to see Jesse in prison, and then finally, when I went back to David, I sort of hinted at it. And he said, "Well, yeah, I guess I should tell you that, in addition to the twenty-five hours of home movies that we took, that my father took of the family during happy times, birthday parties, there's another twenty-five hours of home videos that I started taking after the police showed up." So, that was kind of a shocking thing. And then we sat down and we watched the tape that we now call Jesse's Last Night, and it was really an incredibly sad thing to watch. And I don't think there was anything about that that was done for the camera. I think it really was the clearest evidence of the breakdown of the family, and just a sad, sad moment. I came from a family of three boys, and we grew up outside of Manhattan?the whole idea of the two older boys staying up all night, it's really a killer.
dOc: Let me ask you one last question: Where'd you find the guy to be the voice of Mr. Moviefone?
AJ: Actually, he was a partner in the company, and we all sort of agreed that he had the goofiest voice.