This has been a golden era for documentary filmmaking. In the past twenty years we have seen one superb movie after another like Roger & Me, Hearts of Darkness, Hoop Dreams, Crumb, The Fog of War, Deliver Us From Evil, and When the Levees Broke. Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans also belongs on that list. It is a modern day Greek tragedy – a haunting portrait of the disintegration of an American family. Jarecki has made one of those rare movies that affected me so strongly that it lingered in my mind for days after seeing it.

Many great documentaries develop when a filmmaker has an idea and in the process discovers material to expand on the original concept. Jarecki, who made a fortune as co-founder of Moviefone, set out to do a documentary on popular children’s birthday clowns in New York. One of the most popular clowns was David Friedman. During research Jarecki discovered that David had a disturbing family background story that he wanted to explore. It turned out that Friedman’s father, Arnold, and brother, Jesse, were arrested and convicted for child molestation in the 1980s in their affluent community of Long Island, NY.

Based on the material as Jarecki presents it, we conclude that Arnold likely was the victim of trumped up charges and heresy but that he probably was indeed a pedophile. Jesse’s role in the events appears cloudy. The charges for this kind of crime, or even just accusation, tend to ruin people’s lives regardless of guilt or innocence. Jarecki interviews most of the key players involved in the case including some victims and their families, lawyers, police, and the judge. We get to see testimony from these individuals and begin to form opinions of their motivations, biases, prejudices. This ambiguity allows the audience the chance to make up our own minds about who to believe and what interpretations to make. Jarecki wants to explore the relativity of truth the way Kurosawa did in his landmark Rashomon.

Capturing the Friedmans is so compelling largely because of Jarecki’s refusal to make judgments. Rare for a filmmaker today, Jarecki trusts the audience enough to let us draw our own conclusions. His approach is to show us the danger inherent in how accusations can lead directly to a presumption of guilt based mostly on speculation. Child molestation is a horrible crime that can do lasting damage to the victims. However, Jarecki argues that a community that forms preconceptions about a person’s guilt without any real hard evidence can be just as damaging. We see through interviews that the facts about the crime were likely exaggerated for effect and that some of the testimony of the youthful victims was likely enhanced by adult manipulation. Whatever the culpability of the accused, one feels the horror of injustices being done to the Friedman family.

What separates Capturing the Friedmans from a standard documentary of this kind is the inclusion of revealing home video footage shot by David Friedman during the trial. Reluctantly, David agreed to let Jarecki use the footage as part of the documentary and we can only wonder why. David films his family being torn apart and fighting amongst themselves and the fact that nobody prevented it from being filmed is shocking. (One brother did refuse to participate in being interviewed.) The images seen here of family dysfunction represent the kind of behavior that is usually kept behind closed doors. Watching Capturing the Friedmans is alternately fascinating and haunting, and after it’s over you want to discuss and argue about what you saw.