Capturing the Friedmans

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2004

One of the subjects of the film, David Friedman, is a birthday clown here in NYC and was profiled by Susan Orlean in the New Yorker a few years ago. The story didn?t touch on any of the family history, which didn?t come out until Andrew Jarecki, the director of the film, profiled David for a short film on clowns, at which point the project exploded in scope.

There?s been some criticism of the film for being misleading, and that view has some merit. The director states in this interview that two scenes near the end of the movie, one showing Jesse Friedman clowning around and one showing him crying were actually shot weeks apart, not within the same day as the film makes it seem. But so much of the film is about the difference between reality and perception anyway that the whole thing could be fiction or heavily biased and it wouldn?t matter too much (to me at least).

Reader comments

JulieMar 19, 2004 at 7:50PM

And it *wouldn’t* matter, you mean?

It doesn’t bother me to know there are a few misleading parts, because despite that I feel the movie was extremely well done for a documentary of this nature. Misleading is a lot different than being flat out untruthful. I like to be given the “facts” in a documentary, and then I’ll form my own opinion thank you very much. I suppose you have to trust that the director has been faithful to what knowledge she or he has gained and edited the film appropriately.

Two other outstanding documentaries I can recommend: The True Meaning of Pictures and Stevie.

KaijimaMar 19, 2004 at 9:17PM

If “Possession is 9/10ths of the Law” then “Perception is 9/10ths of Society” should go along with it.

You could say that not the intelligence so much as the objective awareness of human beings decrease as their numbers increase. The more people you get together in a cohesive group, the more facts seem to be stretched thin between too many minds trying to figure out a common picture. Vague ideas more easily become taken for granted as common wisdom. A kind of herding instinct seems to kick in whereby if one fellow next to you is doing a given thing, it may not matter much, but if 10 are doing the same thing, you better follow along because it’s probably what you should be doing, too.

Then deviation from the crowd becomes a bit fearful; not just in an individual, but in others around that person. Deviation isn’t automatically seen as bad, much of the time, but still as something strange potentially dangerous; if a given deviation is deemed to be dangerous (whether it is, or isn’t), a greater number of people will exaggerate the danger at a geometric rate. When our neighbors panic, we tend to panic as well. When what can seem like “most” of society panics or stands aghast at something, we can tend to do the same unless we have an existing picture in our heads which is very strong in a different direction, or we are very, very careful and aware of these traits of group psychology.

Unfortunetely, some people know all too well how to play these traits to their advantage. From politicians to the media to interest groups, manipulation of the common perception is an art with a long-standing tradition and a pretty hefty bible of techniques to go with it. It’s too bad the “man on the street” is so infrequently aware of when this art is being practiced, especially on himself.

jkottkeMar 19, 2004 at 9:52PM

And it *wouldn’t* matter, you mean?

Yep, thanks for catching that.

AnthonyMar 20, 2004 at 12:55AM

Saw this a few weeks ago and was really intrigued by this amazing “cast” of characters. I was a bit disppointed to find - watching the DVD extras - there were some major points left out of the film itself.

markMar 20, 2004 at 12:03PM

Jean-Luc Godard had said (and I’m paraphrasing badly here) that when making a documentary you inevitable end up making fiction. It is impossible for the director to avoid coloring the film with his own ideas and impression. When you work with fiction, it is inevitable that that film becomes part documentary, as events and actions from the world find their way into the film.

neelMar 22, 2004 at 12:43PM

Godard’s point is truistic — we all know that knowledge is biased and that representation is never complete and that fact and fiction enjoy an intimate relationship. That doesn’t mean that we have to abandon honesty as a virtue when we make or view films.

This is a documentary — when we view it, we are actually entering other people’s lives! It’s invasive, and I think we owe it to the subjects to be sure that we’ve got their stories straight.

A couple of writers have assembled an article at Slate that details the film’s distortions. They claim that the film exaggerates the evidentiary ambiguity, and assert that there is actually far less evidence implicating Friedman than there is that exonerates him. Whether or not you agree with them, I think it’s important to hold a documentary filmmaker accountable for truth as well as beauty. You can read their analysis and find out for yourself.


jkottkeMar 22, 2004 at 1:47PM

A couple of writers have assembled an article at Slate that details the film’s distortions.

It’s interesting that parties on both sides of this debate are arguing that the film is biased; the police and the DA’s office are adamant that CtF unfairly presents Arnold and Jesse as innocent while the authors of this article argue the opposite. I watched much of the extra material included on the DVD last night. My reaction to the new material, contrary to that of the Slate article’s authors, is more confusion as to what really happened. Everyone has a plausible explanation for everything…or an outlandish explanation for everything.

If I had to make a best guess as to what happened based solely on the movie and the DVD extras (that is, an uninformed guess), I’d say that Jesse is completely innocent. Arnold’s situation is harder to guess because he was an admitted pedophile, but I have a hard time believing that so much rape and molestation could have gone on without the police finding any physical evidence of it.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.