In 2015, the hit television show Making a Murderer turned the world into a jury. Over the course of ten episodes it presented in detail the circumstances of the arrest and trial of alleged murderer Steven Avery. For some people, Avery was clearly innocent of his crimes, a victim of a corrupt police force trying to cover their tracks. For others, the evidence against him was compelling enough for a conviction.
The show exposed how subjective truth can sometimes be, a theme that director Andrew Jarecki anticipated a decade earlier with his documentary, Capturing the Friedmans. It is constructed similarly to Making a Murderer, in that it encourages the audience to judge the extent of a man’s guilt when presented with differing perspectives on the same events.
The story begins in 1987 when Arnold Friedman, a respected, award-winning teacher from Long Island, New York is arrested for distributing child pornography. Over the course of the next several months the case against Friedman builds until he is eventually charged with numerous counts of child sex abuse. One of his three sons, Jesse, is also implicated and faces similar charges.
We then witness, through extensive home footage shot around the time of the trial, a family fall to pieces. It seems that allegiances have already been formed well before the charges against the two men are filed. Jesse and his brothers, David and Seth, worship their father and flat out refuse to believe that he is guilty of such atrocious crimes. On the other hand, their mother and Arnold’s wife, Elaine, rapidly becomes weary of the whole affair. Her pessimism fiercely provokes her sons, who can’t understand why she acts so callously towards their father.
It is difficult to watch a family implode so spectacularly. David, the eldest son and by far the most vocal, is frequently sent into a rage by the injustice with which he believes his father is being treated.
Arnold, however, admits to his paedophilia. By his own admission, he is guilty of acting on his attraction to children. When confronted with evidence to support this, David once again rejects it.
It is understandable that Arnold’s sons would be so defensive of their father but what it is harder to grasp is the extent to which the Friedman name is demonised in the media even before the trial has started. We saw in Making a Murderer how the sensationalist reporting of Steven Avery’s case could have influenced the trial and the same is true of the Friedmans’ case.
It puts the viewer in an awkward position because on the one hand we know that Arnold Friedman is a paedophile, yet the hysteria with which his case is treated – not just in the media, but by almost everyone involved, including the police – completely derails any chance of a fair trial. The accounts of the sexual abuse escalate until they sound too preposterous to be true; stories of a violent, bloodthirsty pair of predators who used the cover of computer classes to beat and rape their victims over months and years.
They did all this, allegedly, without leaving any physical evidence on their victims or elsewhere. By its own admission, the state’s case against the Friedmans is based entirely on the testimony of their victims, which is shown to be unreliable on more than one occasion.
Such inconsistencies mean that Capturing the Friedmans pulls you to and fro trying to figure out what really happened in those classes. The likelihood is that the truth will never be known, only the truth as certain people remember it. What is easy to see is the influence that the media can have on the justice system. It can draw whatever picture it likes of defendants before they have even had a chance to defend themselves. It turns the world into a jury which passes verdict based on speculation and hyperbole. It undermines one of the fundamental tenets of the justice system, that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
Capturing the Friedmans is a challenging watch, not only for the nature of the crimes with which Arnold and Jesse are charged, but also for its intimate look at their family’s painful disintegration. The photographs and videos that the Friedmans have taken over the years tell a poignant story, that of a happy couple and their contented children. Despite their difficulties, Andrew Jarecki manages to find people in that household, where most would only find monsters, and that is commendable.