YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Captured at the point of origin

A documentary screens in a town polarized by the sex-abuse case it depicts.

June 02, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

GREAT NECK, N.Y. — "There's the judge," Andrew Jarecki says outside the Clearview Squire Cinemas, with a nod at retired Judge Abbey Boklan, who sentenced two of the main characters in Jarecki film to prison for sexually abusing young boys.

"The prosecutor's here, too," Jarecki says as the crowd heads into the small theater complex. "And there's one of the families." That's the Georgalis family, whose son, Ron, was among the scores of local kids who went to the basement of a home less than a mile from the theater to take $10 computer classes from a popular high school science teacher, Arnold Friedman, who would later be described in court as "a monster."

"He took like four courses, and I took courses myself," says his mother, Margalit. "I was there every Wednesday, at four in the afternoon, and at six, then back at eight. And I can tell you this -- it didn't happen."

Then another woman says, "I was their neighbor, and I could tell you stories -- if you could get me in." They hadn't even entered the sold-out premiere, but the debate already was underway among the people who lived through the events at the heart of Jarecki's documentary, "Capturing the Friedmans."

The movie had been shown previously at various festivals -- such as Seattle's, Sundance and most recently Tribeca -- but Friday was opening night of its real run at select theaters in New York, including this one in the affluent suburban village that was the scene of one of the mass sex abuse scandals of the 1980s. (The film opens June 13 in Los Angeles.)

The Friedman case was the East Coast's version of California's notorious McMartin Pre-School case, with one big difference -- while the mother and son accused in the McMartin case were eventually exonerated, and the charges exposed as the product of mass hysteria, the father and son in the Friedman case pleaded guilty in 1988. Arnold Friedman, who later killed himself in prison with an overdose of antidepressants, faced 107 counts, while his youngest son Jesse, then 19, accepted a plea bargain while facing 245 counts.

Though he is now free on parole after serving 13 years in prison, Jesse did not attend Friday night's screening in Great Neck. But another Friedman did make the event that had been billed as a "town meeting" on the happenings that once brought unwelcome headlines to this Long Island community.

Among those filtering in was the oldest of the three Friedman sons, David, the one who first drew the interest of novice filmmaker Jarecki because of his unusual job -- as a successful children's birthday party clown in Manhattan. Only later did Jarecki discover his clown's unusual family history, along with another secret -- that the Friedmans had made extensive home videos even as two of them were being demonized by the world outside as inhuman sexual predators.

Now, 15 years later, the oldest son returned to what others saw as the scene of the crime and said, "This film is the trial we never got." Jarecki himself called it returning to the "belly of the beast," in part because he knew what it meant for him. If "Capturing the Friedmans" does provide a trial of sorts for a family that never got one, the director inevitably would face pressure to do something he carefully avoided in his film, which is to sit as a juror himself -- to say whether he personally believes the Friedmans "did it."

Backing off

When he began working on the project that would take him three years to research and complete, Jarecki thought he might make himself part of the film, serving as the classic outside narrator who invites his audience along on his journey for the truth. The most prominent documentary filmmaker of the moment, Michael Moore, does this in the extreme, making himself the central character -- and agent provocateur -- in "Roger and Me" and "Bowling for Columbine."

But when Jarecki began filming such a personal "companion narrative" himself, telling how he started documenting this birthday clown and was drawn into the inner world of a scandalized family, he sensed that his own story was "so pedestrian," especially when contrasted with the film's "emerging lyrical quality."

He also sensed that such an approach gave audience members an easy out -- they could react to him, and his positions, rather than to the Friedmans or the law enforcement officials who pursued them.

"If you don't impose too much explanation, the audience has to do the work," Jarecki concluded. But if you came on too strong, they could say, "I don't have to do this because the filmmaker has done it for me."

So Jarecki basically took himself out of the film. Though his voice is heard occasionally asking a question, he is never seen during the 107 minutes that are dominated by the Friedmans telling their story, and the cops and others telling theirs, and by the home movies from over the years, the early ones showing an idealized family, with bouncing babies and vacations at the beach, and the chilling later ones showing the Friedman clan coming apart.

Los Angeles Times Articles