Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans"

The name "Jarecki" should jump out to fans of the modern documentary. A man named Eugene Jarecki made a movie called "Why We Fight," which is, in my opinion, the finest documentary I have seen. Apparently this knack for documentary is a family trait: Eugene's brother Andrew Jarecki made his directorial debut with his documentary, "Capturing the Friedmans."

The film captures a family in turmoil. In a semi-affluent New York neighborhood, a father and son, the Friedmans, are accused of molesting multiple children at a computer class taught in their basement. The film, though, starts with some benign, almost endearing footage of the family joking with each other and just acting like a family. It's not until about ten minutes in that we realize the film is not about how the family functions, but how the family falls apart over the course of the investigation and trial of the father and youngest son.

It's an absurd premise. Making a documentary about a trial is not unheard of. Neither is making a documentary about a family, or making a documentary about a failing marriage or about a troubled individual giving in to temptation. What this film does is blend all of these together to arrive at a complex, interwoven portrait of the nature of truth in an American family and an American court.

And that's what sets this film apart from a lot of the pack of modern documentaries. It does tell a story or two (or more), but it's main premise is to expose the ambiguity of truth in our legal system and in our lives. The question is not whether the father and son are guilty of the molestation charges against them. The question is, who else might be guilty, and of what? Or even, what is guilt?

In one expert scene, a lawyer relates a touching account of his client finally admitting to having a problem and deciding to plead guilty. But intercut with his account is the client's story of being manipulated by that very same lawyer into pleading guilty against his own better judgment and out of desperation. The truth probably hovers somewhere in between, and Jarecki does an expert job of letting us sort of wander around this in-between-ness of truth and come to our own conclusions (or even be satisfied by the roundness and symmetry of this lack of conclusions).

One similarity between Eugene Jarecki's expert "Why We Fight" and Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans" is the nearly entirely absent hand of the filmmaker. Every once in a while, you can hear the director ask a question in an interview, but by and large, there are no voice-overs or on-screen appearances by the filmmakers. These films appear self-organizing, as opposed to the products of the directors.

"Why We Fight" was a clean, impactful, persuasive film essay, while "Capturing the Friedmans" is a messy, ambiguous, emotional nonfiction narrative. But both, for entirely different reasons, feel like they sprang fully formed from reality. And that's basically what I feel a great documentary is meant to accomplish.

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