A few years back, Andrew Jarecki—who created Moviefone, so he had a couple of bucks to play with—set out to make a documentary about one of New York’s most popular children’s party entertainers, a clown called “Silly Billy.” I understand the fascination. Silly Billy entertained at my daughter’s third birthday two years ago, and he cut quite a figure: a middle-aged Jewish man in baggy overalls and oversized yellow glasses, with no makeup and a sort of haunted sourness. But he was a sensational clown. I’m still in awe of the way he held the attention of 25 clamorous 2- and 3-year-olds, purposely screwing up to earn their scorn and then triumphantly demonstrating his virtuosity. (He was also the best balloon-animal twister I’ve ever seen.) I’d hire him again in an instant, but there was something peculiar about him. “Does he even like kids?” we all wondered. And: “Why would a man like that choose a profession like birthday party entertainer?” He’s the sort of guy you look at and think, “What’s this clown’s story?”
As Jarecki discovered, to his evident surprise, it’s a beaut. Silly Billy’s name is David Friedman. He grew up in affluent Great Neck, N.Y., on the north shore of Long Island, where his father, Arnold, and his younger brother, Jesse, pleaded guilty in the late ‘80s to sexually molesting young boys who’d come to their house for computer lessons. After the arrests, David Friedman bought a video camera and taped his family’s tortured interactions while their home was under siege.
Jarecki’s emotionally brutal documentary Capturing the Friedmans (Magnolia Pictures) mixes David’s original home videos with contemporary interviews to concoct what one might call Silly Billy’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night: the story of a family that pays, agonizingly, for the sins of the father. It’s an astounding weave, suffused with anger and shame and a sense of hopelessness. It is also, at times, queasily exploitive: David Friedman was effectively coerced into co-operating because Jarecki—when he discovered the Friedmans’ history—had no intention of withdrawing. In some respects, Jarecki just scratches the surface of the material, and the film is often coy and withholding. Yet it’s also riveting and so suggestive that you can’t consume it passively: You have to brood on it.
You have to wonder, first, if you have any right to be watching. Early on, a younger and leaner David sits on his bed and addresses the camera: This video is for him and him alone, he says, and if you’re not him, and especially if you’re the police, “F— you.” And even though David presumably turned the tape over to Jarecki, he clearly never thought that the resulting feature would turn up at his local multiplex. (As I write this, Capturing the Friedmans is literally at his local multiplex—according to MapQuest, less than three-quarters of a mile from where, 15 years ago, David made that tape.) On many occasions, family members turn away from the camera or tell David to turn it off, but he persists in probing his father, mother, and brothers for their thoughts and feelings. It’s unnerving—and watching the tapes can make you feel slightly unclean. But there is also something more important at stake than the Friedman family’s privacy.
The presence in the film of Debbie Nathan—a journalist who has devoted much of her career to chronicling trumped-up charges of sexual abuse of children (with an emphasis on the controversial area of recovered memories)—is a tip-off that the case against Arnold and Jesse Friedman might not be all the prosecution said it was. But what was that case? Capturing the Friedmans delivers its information in teasing dribs and drabs and never allows Nathan (or anyone else with much perspective) to attempt an objective summary of the catastrophe. What is not in dispute is that Arnold Friedman was a pedophile. He had a stack of magazines depicting young boys having sex—it was one of them, on its way from Denmark, that brought him under government scrutiny in the first place. And, in a letter, he admits to having once molested two boys near the family’s summer cottage, as well as his own younger brother, Howard, when they both were kids.
What Arnold maintains he didn’t do is molest any children in Great Neck—and, further, that there was nothing like the ritual rapes and assaults described by numbers of boys following high-pressure interviews with prosecutors and their attendant therapists. So, you have a figure worthy of a great tragedy: a man who has sinned in his own eyes, who is guilty of a heinous act but possibly not the one that devours his family. The rub—at least for the movie—is that Arnold doesn’t have the stature of a tragic protagonist. Again and again, David’s camera turns to him for a signal, and again and again there is nothing forthcoming: no admission of wrongdoing on the one hand, no emotional declaration of innocence on the other. The movie’s twilight zone of ambiguity emanates from its patriarch: Arnold Friedman keeps the curtains on his life tightly closed until the end.
Jesse Friedman is another matter, and much of the horror of Capturing the Friedmans revolves around the alleged complicity of the youngest son. Did his father sexually abuse him? Was he a participant in games of bare-bottom leapfrogging, as alleged by prosecutors? There was, simply, no physical evidence, and nothing was reported—to anyone—until Long Island prosecutors, armed with evidence that Arnold Friedman had both received and mailed pedophile magazines, began to dig. There is little doubt that those prosecutors and the judge—all of whom are interviewed by Jarecki—believe that both Arnold and Jesse Friedman were guilty. But there’s at least a reasonable doubt that anything happened in those computer classes.
According to Nathan, writing recently in the Village Voice, Jarecki left out some interviews that would have strengthened the case against the police and the family’s accusers—apparently so that the film would not be viewed as an anti-prosecutorial tract in the manner of, well, a Debbie Nathan piece. It’s great that someone out there thinks ambiguity is a good commercial strategy, but I found the case against the prosecution more devastating for being undersold. There is a lot in the movie to suggest that the recovered memories were questionable. There is also some less-than-subtle editorializing, such as an interview with one of the accusers that makes him look and sound like a male hustler. (His head is in shadow to conceal his identity, but he’s splayed out provocatively on a sofa.) That’s in sharp contrast to the students and parents who speak up for Arnold Friedman and who report the prosecutors’ blunt tactics to make them and their boys “remember” the abuse.
Those prosecutors regard the Friedmans as insanely dysfunctional, but to me they look all too typical. The father is idolized by the three sons (the third brother, Seth, is seen in the home movies but refused to be interviewed by Jarecki), but the mother, Elaine, is openly despised for her disloyalty toward Arnold. David calls Elaine Friedman cold, humorless, and narcissistic. She might or might not be, but I’m bound to say that I sympathized with her: She’d spent her life with a man who kept the truth to himself, even when his family was going down. In any case, it’s creepy to be passing judgment on people we don’t know, based on so little evidence. Even the participants don’t fully understand the story: Arnold’s younger brother Howard says he might have been molested a child, but he honestly doesn’t remember. He touches his head and says, “Nothing there.” It might be a case of a real repressed memory.
There is at least one moment in Capturing the Friedmans that eats at me. The morning of Jesse’s sentencing, prosecutors watched from their windows as his brothers videotaped him outside the courthouse. They describe his clowning for David’s camera as arrogant and mocking; it confirmed for them that he was indeed a depraved sociopath. But the tape—which we subsequently see—suggests the opposite exactly. It shows a young man in a hopeless situation, resigned to his fate yet acting out his rage and his fear in a kind of heartrending ballet. It’s a little like Lenny Bruce in his last days—when the enormity of that Kafkaesque nightmare had fully hit him. Suddenly the impulse of David Friedman to buy that video camera and record the death of his family for posterity makes brilliant sense. You might feel like a voyeur watching Capturing the Friedmans, but the family circus it depicts is like nothing you’ve seen in a documentary before. It’s the kind of clown show where Silly Billy really looks at home.