Andrew Jarecki’s mesmerizing, mind-confounding documentary Capturing the Friedmans dissects a seemingly average American family—surrounded by a seemingly average, sensible community—in a way that is seldom successfully done in cinema.  Arnold Friedman, father of three (David, Seth, and Jesse) and husband of one (Elaine), is a well-respected computer teacher in his neighborhood of Great Neck, New Jersey in the late 1980’s.  This, of course, is shattered when the FBI tracks child pornography being trafficked in and out of Arnold’s home, with letters signed “Enjoy! Arnold” attached.  Once the alarm bell of pedophilia is rung, little can stop the hellish chain of events that is set in motion.  Arnold’s weekly computer class for elementary-aged boys becomes the source of heated suspicion, and quicker than one can mutter “witch hunt,” Arnold and his son Jesse are smacked with mass molestation charges that are weirdly and wildly unbelievable.  Made around the turn of the millennium, Capturing the Friedmans turns a critical eye to a decade-old case and interviews the gamut of individuals caught up in the controversy, including many members of the Friedman family and of the Great Neck “justice” system.  Arnold Friedman could not be reached for an interview, as he died while in prison.

Jarecki’s documentary achieves a rare thing in that it pushes a defense argument while remaining remarkably—and unforgivingly—even-handed in its inclusion of information.  Though it exposes the American justice system to be infected with a hysteria that is at once prudish and fantastical, the film’s primary fascination is not as civic-minded as other notable case-based documentaries such as The Thin Blue Line and Paradise Lost.  Rather, Capturing the Friedmans is intrigued by the bottomless enigma of psyche that comes to the fore with a case as sensitive as Arnold and Jesse Friedman’s.

“Maybe I shot the videotape so that I wouldn’t have to remember it myself… Like when your parents take pictures of you, do you remember being there or do you remember just the photograph hanging on the wall?”  This astute, troubled observation by David Friedman of his decision to videotape his family throughout the scandal echoes a general theme subtly broached in Capturing the Friedmans: the repression of memory.  Personal recording and documenting of events is often thought of as a way of enhancing memories, of giving memories longevity.  Yet when one’s father and kid brother have been slammed with socially damning charges and are awaiting almost certainly epic prison sentences, the act of recording daily household interactions transforms into a method of memory burial.

David, with his skittish eyes and jittery, perpetually half-enraged demeanor, is not the only interviewee in Capturing the Friedmans who admits to mental blanks.  Elaine (perse-lipped and reluctantly candid) tells us that at the time of Arnold’s arrest she was shown pictures from her husband’s magazine stash by their lawyer, but that it was not until after being shown the magazine pictures a second time—once the court proceedings were over—that she truly registered the sickening images in front of her.  Arnold’s brother claims no recollection of sexual experimentation with his brother at an early age, even though Arnold partially attributed his sexual perversions as an adult to these early experimentations.  These lapses in memory, whether real or indicative of a greater web of lies that may be shrouding the subjects of the film, at once stand perplexingly alone and contrast intriguingly with the testimonies coaxed out of the young computer students by the Great Neck police.  Capturing the Friedmans is fascinated by the tricky ways memories leave us, return to us, and are planted within us to devastating effect.

The film is also not afraid to mercilessly reveal the wicked humor that can crop up in the midst of a case that has such uncomfortable accusations.  An anonymous computer student from Arnold’s class, who claims to have vivid memories of abuse that were summoned from hypnotherapy, lies reclined on a plush couch as if someone were about to feed him grapes.  His denim shorts have bunched at his crotch as he tells us of the game of “leapfrog” the computer students were forced to endure.  Peter Panaro, Jesse Friedman’s slimy defense lawyer, comes off as more used car salesman than dedicated public servant.  David Friedman, after coping with the accusations of his father and brother being pedophiles, chooses the awkward profession of a kiddie birthday clown.  It’s all a little weird, and the desire to smirk feels like both a guilty pleasure and a clever manipulation on the part of Jarecki.  As when Jesse Friedman laughs hysterically on the courthouse steps during a temporary adjournment, our laughter proves to be an enormous relief in the midst of a wholly unsettling film.

At the heart of Capturing the Friedmans is a family that has been torn apart by various forces.  Jarecki forms an undeniably convincing argument for the bogusness of the “mass molestation” computer classes, but the director is careful not to paint the individuals of the Friedman family in too pious of a light.  David Friedman harbors utter denial at the idea that his father molested anyone at any point in his life, despite the written psychiatric confession of such things by Arnold Friedman himself.  Multiple subjects mention Elaine Friedman’s emotional instability and difficult temperament.  Jesse Friedman’s claims that he was forced into a false confession by Peter Panaro become questionable when court footage reveals Jesse to be tearfully—and realistically—admitting his and his father’s guilt.  During the course of the scandal, the three sons gang up against their mother (while remaining staunchly, blindly supportive of their father) in a way that seems both needlessly mean-spirited and weirdly sexist.

These individual interviews which simultaneously arouse so much sympathy and doubt are intercut with old home videotapes of the Friedmans during happier times.  Sweet, sentimental piano music plays on the soundtrack as grainy footage reveals the three sons— not angry adult men but chubby-cheeked little boys—playing happily with their parents.  Arnold Friedman, the key absentee, makes calm appearances of sparse words.  With all the suspicion and skepticism swirling throughout the film, it is these moments of a family united in the irretrievable past that are given the most reverence.  While individuals are repeatedly called into question in Capturing the Friedmans, it is the loss of a family that is sincerely mourned.