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Viewing activities 2


Both The Fog of War and Capturing the Friedmans, like all but the most impressionistic/experimental documentaries, are concerned with telling stories. They are narratives and alongside the imperative to explain must also seek to intrigue and entertain an audience.

Print out the table (pdf) that sets out the opening moments of Capturing the Friedmans. Your task is to consider the expectations raised in this sequence and questions it sets up. The task is in two parts. This section should be attempted before you have seen the documentary.

Mother and three children looking happy and waving mini flagsThe Friedman family

Use the right-hand column to record the impact each of the sequences that make up the start of Capturing the Friedmans. Try to reflect on the kinds of questions the sequence raises. In particular:

  • Consider the use of music and its impact.
  • The speed of the editing – you are being asked to get to know a lot of people very quickly.
  • What impression, if any, you receive about the main family members.
  • What do you make of this family that seems to have so much film recording their activities?

After viewing

The full richness of this sequence will not be revealed until a second or third viewing of the film. Here are just a few of the elements that carry profound ironic connotations once one knows more about the Friedmans:

  • The choice of 'Act Naturally' to accompany the main credits.
  • The seeming normality of much of the standard family footage.
  • Elaine – first shown as a sexy younger woman in a bathing suit – the camera actually travelling up her body to reveal her.
  • The headline of the newspaper she is reading.
  • The shots of David performing.
  • Seth’s seeming reticence at the picnic table.
  • Jesse’s general joyousness – dancing and jigging in one sequence.
  • The boy – shirtless, pretending to be a body builder.
  • The ‘Funny Farm’ film credits.

Arnold Friedman and his youngest son Jesse with policeman

Arnold Friedman and his youngest son Jesse with policeman

Extension task

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story The Copper Beeches there is an exchange between Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes that possibly has a strong bearing on Capturing the Friedmans. They are travelling out of London and Watson calls Holmes' attention to the beauty of the countryside around Aldershot and the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings, peeping out from amidst the light green of the new foliage.

Holmes takes no delight in the scene, saying: "Do you know Watson, that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation, and of the impunity with which a crime may be committed there."

This longish quotation seems helpful in suggesting some key issues raised by the documentary:

  • Is this a film in which it is a community that is in the dock rather than an individual family? If so – how does Jarecki achieve this, particularly in the short segments of film showing scenes around Long Neck often filmed in a variety of creative ways.
  • Were the authorities responsible for a terrible miscarriage of justice here ‘seeing corruption’ where there perhaps was none?
  • Were the lawyers representing Arnold and Jesse culpable in some ways for their fate?
  • How difficult is it to feel sympathy for Arnold Friedman because, as the investigative journalist Debbie Nathan points out, he was not ever in a position of entire innocence 'he did have paedophile interests and had abused young boys by his own admission'? And what of the behaviour of the rest of the family - did they do little to help themselves by acting in an eccentric way?
  • Is it a film that leads the viewer to a profound distrust of seemingly innocent filmed material? In this category would be the sequences showing off the prosperous normality of Long Neck's suburban streets, the playful cine-films the Friedman's took prior to the allegations against them and even the Jarecki-shot interludes showing children in playgrounds or swimming pools that pepper his film?
  • What do you make of the seeming significance given the little dancing girl 'Arnold's sister who died of blood poisoning' who crops up twice in the film, the second time very near the end? Is she a clue to the truth of what happened?
  • To what extent is the epitaph on Arnold's grave: 'Arnold Friedman 1931-1985 Loving Father; Devoted Teacher; Pianist; Physicist; Beach Bum' so appropriate? Does it serve as a suitable conclusion to Jarecki's film?

Elaine Friedman playing 'ring of roses' with childrenElaine Friedman playing with children