- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Filmmaker’s discovery of a father’s ghastly legacy

Andrew Jarecki hit the jackpot in the telecommunications industry when he sold the Moviefone information service to America Online for a reported $388 million in 1999.

This windfall allowed Mr. Jarecki to devote himself to a new career, filmmaking. It was an unorthodox change of direction for a successful businessman in his late 30s, but Mr. Jarecki could also afford to pick and choose his subjects, without fearing financial backers who might limit his independence.

Fortune continues to smile on his endeavors — in a sobering kind of way. Mr. Jarecki’s first feature — a remarkable documentary chronicle of family scandal, estrangement and solidarity titled “Capturing the Friedmans” — has opened to an admiring press in several cities, duplicating its reception at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Mr. Jarecki spent a couple of days in Washington recently to play host to press screenings and give interviews.

The movie, which reconciles gravely serious content with gallows humor and exploitable oddness, is playing at both the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5 and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema. By chance, it has opened just before Silverdocs, a five-day film festival at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre showcasing documentaries. Silverdocs runs from Wednesday to June 22.

Mr. Jarecki discovered his eventual subject matter while interviewing people who worked as birthday party clowns in New York City. One of his subjects, David Friedman, turned out to be the heir to a melancholy legacy: a uniquely painful family history, documented with astonishing intimacy and candor in many sequences of “Capturing the Friedmans” by home movie and videotape archives. What they capture is the aftermath of a 1988 criminal case that sent his father, the late Arnold Friedman, and his younger brother, Jesse, to prison on charges of sexual molestation.

“David is sort of conflicted,” Mr. Jarecki says. “He knows the film could be bad for his career, but he did it for the right reasons. I was open to whatever I might find. I began without the slightest inkling that this dreadful family calamity would be lurking in the background of my birthday clown project.”

Mr. Jarecki dismisses the idea that his film confirms the cliche of clowns hurting inside, behind the makeup. “If you keep looking at any group of people, you could find something haunting,” he says.

Mr. Jarecki had been keen on magic in his youth but thought it curious that there were grownups who made a living as birthday party clowns.

“David was recommended to me as No. 1 guy in New York,” he recalls. “He has many colorful colleagues, like the lady who makes things out of paper plates and the best balloon twister in the world. I gathered a lot of interesting material for a clown film, but the story of David’s family demanded a radical change of theme.”

While attending a private secondary school in Tarrytown, N.Y., Mr. Jarecki was required to write a thesis about classic tragedy in his senior year.

“So it’s ironic,” he says, “that this story would come to me — and in such a disarming, roundabout way. I think the saga of the Friedmans could be studied in tragic literature classes. It has all the elements, starting with the father, who could be considered a noble man.

“Arnold Friedman started a family with the best of intentions. He was a respected and dedicated schoolteacher, but he clearly had a tragic flaw. Not the obvious, psychological bent, the clinical thing: his lust for young boys. Something else betrayed him when that weakness was exposed publicly: the Aristotelian thing, his pride. Hubris.”

Arnold and Elaine Friedman lived in the Long Island community of Great Neck with their three sons, David, Seth and Jesse. One Thanksgiving eve, David returned from college to discover that domestic security had collapsed: The police were ransacking the place and preparing to arrest Arnold and Jesse. Subsequently, Arnold admitted that he was a furtive pederast of long standing. He let his guard slip by answering a correspondent who purported to be a dealer in foreign pornographic publications. By mailing this stranger a magazine from his hidden collection, Arnold sprung a trap patiently prepared for two years by a postal inspection agent, entrusted with a watch list of customers for obscene goods who might prove to be distributors, as well.

The magazine rap led to an avalanche of harrowing criminal charges. Learning that Arnold Friedman had been teaching private piano and computer lessons to adolescent students in his home for several years, Great Neck police were emboldened to suspect that sexual abuse had run rampant. Jesse, 18 at the time of the arrests, was his father’s classroom assistant. He was swept up in the suspicions, which ultimately resulted in hundreds of charges of appalling molestation. The police questioned scores of students, all boys, who were urged to bear witness to repeated sexual victimization in the Friedman basement.

The specific nightmare scenario remains far-fetched. “Jesse is such an unusual guy,” Mr. Jarecki says. “He built a computer database to analyze the charges that were being brought against him. He discovered that if you did the math, one kid in a 90-minute class that met once a week would have to have been raped every 30 minutes for 10 weeks. Then in the fall, when he enrolled in the advanced class, this same victim would have submitted to four rapes a session to account for all the charges.”

Nevertheless, Arnold Friedman ultimately confirmed his own chronic pedophilia in private confessions to his wife, his brother, a lawyer and a journalist. These revelations are profoundly self-incriminating, even through Arnold may have gone to prison on wrongful charges. Both Arnold and Jesse pleaded guilty, persuaded for different reasons that they could expect no vindication from juries in Great Neck.

“Let’s go with the supposition that Jesse was innocent of the charges against him,” the filmmaker says. “And that he was doomed to spend 13 years in prison from the moment his father confessed. I think Arnold missed a chance to save him in the early going. There were three indictments. The first involved serious charges against Arnold and minor ones against Jesse. No sodomy charges, for example.”

Mr. Jarecki thinks that the police were signaling that a deal could be orchestrated.

“Arnold knew his hands were too dirty to proclaim innocence in front of a jury,” he says. “But if he had been less prideful about his reputation, his standing in the community, he might have said, ‘Look, I didn’t do these terrible things, but there are things in my past I’m ashamed of. Let me acknowledge them and go to jail, but spare my son. I’ll plead guilty, but leave him out of it.’”

After uncovering such a tangled and sorrowful real-life chronicle, what does Mr. Jarecki envision as his next project?

“Maybe something fictional,” he says. “When I was at Princeton, I directed a lot of plays and thought I might pursue that as a profession. I’m not exclusively interested in nonfiction subject matter. I’ve lived in Rome for the last few years, and I have an idea for a story about an Italian family. Or I might try to write something that doesn’t need to be filmed.

“There are a lot of interesting things that could work out. I would like it to be as involving and revealing as this experience. I think we’ve done right by David’s story. Everything else is a bonus.”

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