Arnold Friedman, a respected award-winning teacher, and his family are an educated middle-class family living in the Long Island area. They chronicled their family life on super 8, videotape and audio cassette, as many families have over the years. Film-maker Andrew Jarecki is working on a project focusing on eldest son David’s career as New York’s premier birthday clown. As time passes, Jarecki begins to realize that there is another, altogether-more compelling and disturbing story involving David’s family life. The initially-reticent David begins to open up to Jarecki and the project takes on a whole new angle. It emerges that Arnold Friedman and David’s brother Jesse had been arrested on suspicion of possession of child pornography and acts of child abuse some years earlier. In keeping with the family’s obsession with recording themselves, this whole chapter in their lives has been documented along with the more humdrum everyday aspects of their existence. Jarecki is given access to the material and secures interviews with a multitude of figures involved in the allegations and the subsequent trials. What unfolds is a haunting tale of family dysfunction and a disturbing meditation on memory and truth.
Andrew Jarecki’s startling documentary garnered critical acclaim for its frank and unsettling portrait of a family disintegrating under the spotlight of their local community, the media and their own home movies. Utilizing a combination of documentary styles (off-camera questioning, talking-head interviews, pre-recorded footage), mixed with the countless hours of the Friedmans’ archival footage, Jarecki has constructed one of the most compelling and bizarre documentaries of recent years. The seemingly-respectable all-American Friedman family is laid bare as a depressingly-dysfunctional clan that implodes under the weight of the allegations against Arnold and Jesse, the middle of the three sons. As Buck Owens’ ‘Act Naturally’ with its refrain of ‘they’re gonna put me in the movies’ plays over the opening credits of happy family photos and super 8 footage of the Friedmans, we enter into a disturbing and contradictory world of denial, memory and accusation. A portrait of a family being torn apart by criminal investigations emerges, and deeper family secrets are uncovered through present-day interviews. After Arnold is charged with possession of child pornography the police begin to suspect that the after-school computer classes he runs with Jesse for the local kids may be the scene of a hidden world of child abuse.
Capturing the Friedmans is so unsettling because of the contradictory stories that are relayed both by the family and the other interviewees. The confusing accounts given by Arnold and Jesse and some of the alleged victims, coupled with the somewhat unreliable recollections of the police officers involved in the case, fail to paint a clear picture of what may or may not have occurred. Alongside the feeling of voyeurism inherent in watching other people’s home movies, especially when they contain full-blown arguments, tears and accusatory finger-pointing, the film throws up other ideas about the nature of memory, personal and collective truth, and public and private appearances. The footage shown of the family is mixed in with interviews and news footage from the time of the court trials, as a collage of scenes not so much lays bare the facts but sketches out an idea of the overall picture as seen from a multitude of angles and opinions. The style used by Jarecki comes close to resembling the fractured narratives employed by many of the successful TV shows and movies of the present day era, and has a novelistic feel as ‘characters’ are introduced and back stories are filled out with archival and present-day footage. With the proliferation of technology available for the recording of everyday life, the idea of ‘truth’ is thrown into sharp relief, with the films tag line summing it up neatly – ‘who will you believe’?