When a documentary filmmaker uncovers overwhelming evidence that the subject of his film was wrongly convicted, shouldn’t he take a stand on the man’s innocence? This is what one must ask of Andrew Jarecki’s Oscar-nominated Capturing the Friedmans, particularly upon its recent release on DVD.
When Jarecki’s film opened last year, it received mostly rave reviews and was praised for offering “an instructive lesson about the elusiveness of facts,” as Roger Ebert put it. Still, its evenhanded stance disturbed some critics: “it is with [the] pose of neutrality that the film’s troubles begin,” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote.
Containing hours of previously unreleased footage and archival material, the DVD makes it clear that Jarecki decided to maintain a studied ambiguity. He had compelling evidence that the Friedmans had been railroaded by a criminal-justice system in the grips of hysteria. This evidence presumably was omitted for dramatic effect.
The 1989 Friedman prosecution, in which Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse were convicted of multiple charges of sodomy and sexual abuse, said to have taken place during a computer class taught by father and son, is strikingly similar to other mass sex abuse cases of the 1980s. (If you’re not familiar with the film, read David Edelstein’s Slate review.) Communities across the country exploded with outlandish accusations of day-care “sex rings” and multiple-victim child abuse by teachers—among them the McMartin family (preschool teachers accused of engaging in ritual Satanic abuse, including drinking the blood of babies) and Kelly Michaels (a day-care worker accused by 20 children of licking peanut butter from their genitals, shoving assorted objects—including a sword—up their rectums, amputating one boy’s penis—never found to be missing—and turning another child into a mouse). These spectacular allegations have since been exposed as utterly false. The convictions lacked physical evidence and relied on children’s testimony obtained by discredited investigative techniques.
Jarecki was aware of the legal and social context for the Friedmans’ case, but he mostly avoided addressing it in the film. (Disclosure: Harvey Silverglate has acted as co-counsel for Gerald Amirault, and both authors are working for the vindication and release of Bernard Baran. Silverglate has written about the Friedmans film before here.)
The new DVD material, however, elucidates just how flawed the Friedman investigation was. The police moved and manipulated evidence of pornography within the house. And they conducted coercive interviews with the children in the computer class. In the film, one of the detectives on the case, Lloyd Doppman, warns that it’s dangerous to ask leading questions when dealing with suggestible children. Jarecki juxtaposes this statement by Doppman’s colleague, Detective Anthony Squeglia, asserting that in questioning children you must imply the answer without room for denial or evasion: “You don’t give ‘em an option, really.” Not included in the film, however, was the rest of the interview with Squeglia, in which Squeglia says that he had to hold four or five interrogation sessions before the children relented and became “a whole new ball of wax.”
In addition, the DVD discloses that Jarecki had access to the contents of a tape recording surreptitiously made by one mother while detectives questioned her son (transcript available online). In that recording, the detectives made the mother leave the room while they told the boy that Arnold Friedman had confessed that “he sodomized a lot of children,” and that two other boys “both say that they saw [you] engaged in it.” When the boy continued to deny that he had seen any abuse, the detectives insinuated that he would become a homosexual unless he admitted to being abused. They told him that as an abused child he had a “little monster inside” that would “rear its ugly head” unless he “gets help and admits that he was victimized.” The child continued to say nothing had happened. After additional failed attempts to pressure the child into speaking, the detectives ended the interview. As they left, one told the mother that her son “was a wise guy and I didn’t like his answers.”
The DVD includes startling outtakes from Jarecki’s interview with one of the principal accusers. Reclining on a couch with his legs spread and his face hidden by shadows, the unnamed young man makes allegations that are even more bizarre and outlandish than those made in the movie. In the film, he described a regular “leapfrog” game, in which “our [the children’s] asses would be in the air” and Arnold and Jesse would leap from student to student, “sticking their dicks in our asses.” (No physical evidence of sodomy or penetration was ever documented.) In the DVD, we learn that, like many other false child-abuse accusers, the student lived in “a very destructive household” in which “my mom and my father were constantly fighting all the time.” “My father,” he says, “didn’t really give two fucks about my life.” As he goes into gruesome detail about a wide variety of sexual games in the Friedmans’ computer classes, his voice becomes strangely excited. “If you were a favorite, you’d get your [his?] dick rammed up your ass for like 10 minutes. Then you’d have to swallow his semen or something like that, you know?” He appears to relish describing how one of the Friedmans put semen on a stick of gum and forced him to chew it, and how Arnold once ejaculated into a glass of orange juice and forced the class to drink it. It is difficult to believe that such degrading episodes could have happened without a single child out of more than 100 students telling anyone about it until after Detective Squeglia’s interrogations.
This witness—the source of 35 sodomy counts brought against the Friedmans—”remembered” this abuse after undergoing hypnotic memory recovery. (As he said in the film, “I just remember that I went through hypnosis, came out, and it [the abuse] was in my mind.”) Hypnotic recovery is notorious for creating false memories. (In the DVD’s commentary track, Jarecki tells us that he had scheduled an interview with the hypnotists who “recovered” victim memories in the Friedman case, but the therapists canceled at the last minute.)
Those people who believe in the Friedmans’ guilt often cite, as damning evidence, the film’s failure to reveal that another young man, Ross Goldstein, was arrested for abuse. What the new DVD materials elucidate is just how spurious the case against Goldstein was. If anything, Goldstein’s arrest bolsters the case for Jesse Friedman’s innocence. Here, Jarecki reveals how Goldstein, then 18 and a friend of Jesse, was intimidated into becoming a witness against the Friedmans. When he initially refused to cooperate in interrogations, the police arrested him and charged him with being Jesse’s accomplice. This meant that he could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted. The police then offered the teenager a plea bargain: In exchange for testifying against Jesse, Goldstein would receive a mere six-month sentence. Within a few weeks, he accepted this offer.
Admittedly, arguing the Friedmans’ innocence is complicated by the fact that Arnold Friedman was a pedophile. (He admits to once having molested two boys, though he maintained that no molestation took place in Great Neck.) Still, the fact is that there is no evidence of mass molestation—nor any evidence of Jesse’s being a pedophile. Indeed, Goldstein’s story parallels the pressure and intimidation placed on Jesse to plead guilty—as he ultimately did. The anti-Friedman constituency cites his plea as conclusive evidence that the crimes occurred. But given the social hysteria of that moment—and the lack of physical evidence—Jesse’s decision to plead guilty hardly seems definitive. Faced with the prospect of a trial before a judge and community who had apparently concluded his guilt before the fact, what rational person would not plead guilty in order to avoid the maximum sentence of 100 years in prison? (Indeed, by assembling so much new evidence on the DVD and in the film, Jarecki has enabled Jesse to file a motion to vacate his conviction.)
Why did Jarecki choose to present the Friedmans’ case “evenhandedly,” despite uncovering overwhelming evidence that no crimes occurred? Jarecki argues that he had to maintain balance so that the film would be taken seriously by viewers. This is not a frivolous point. But Richard Hankin *, a co-producer and editor, makes a revealing comment on the DVD:
We tried to build the film like any dramatic film. I think we didn’t think to ourselves, well, it’s a documentary and therefore it needs to follow this structure that’s based on historical information and putting it in the context of other cases like this. You know we knew this was a film about the family. It wasn’t a film about a phenomenon. Or it wasn’t a film about a period in American history. It was a film about a family.
In other words, the makers of Capturing the Friedmans made a studied decision to minimize the historical context of the charges for the sake of drama. Had the filmmakers placed the case in full perspective and included the overwhelming evidence they had uncovered against the prosecution, the movie would have been less evenhanded but perhaps more responsible. Jesse spent 13 years in prison for crimes that almost certainly never occurred—and to which he was forced to plead guilty because the hysteria of the moment made a fair trial impossible. Jarecki continues to maintain that if the film had been less evenhanded the audience would not have thought deeply about where the truth lay. We think, however, that Jarecki underestimates his audience.