A Family Affair: Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki Discusses How He Captured 'The Friedmans'
Documentary filmmaker Andrew Jarecki knew he had something special with his first feature-length documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, released theatrically last month through Magnolia Pictures and HBO. The film, a dark, Alice in Wonderland-like journey, tracks an upper-middle-class Long Island Jewish family's fall from stability, through charges of child molestation and into a Rashomonic maelstrom of recriminations, accusations and, finally, self-destruction.
Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, Capturing the Friedmans was originally conceived by Jarecki as a day-in-the life of a birthday party clown. But, through one of the subjects in that conception, David Friedman, Jarecki shifted focus, and the film evolved, through interviews and through access to the Friedmans' home movies, into a compelling look at the un-making of a family. It is a documentarian's dream––and nightmare––come true, with its quixotic quest for the truth built on the evershifting sands of human memory.
International Documentary caught up with Jarecki by telephone at his home in Rome, Italy, to talk about how he captured the Friedmans.
How has your Capturing the Friedmans experience affected your views on documentary filmmaking ?
Andrew Jarecki: Since this was my first documentary, I think it's been a baptism by fire in the best sense. I started out making a totally different film. My plan was to make a documentary about professional children's birthday party entertainers in New York City. After working for six months on that film, I discovered that one of my characters, New York's most successful birthday party clown, had a secret story. It took three years to dig it out, but it was the most fascinating journey I've ever taken. In many ways, it was like a mystery.
My key collaborators––my producer Marc Smerling, my editor and co-producer Richard Hankin and our associate producer Jennifer Rogen––often worked on unraveling different aspects of the mystery simultaneously. I might be in upstate New York visiting Jesse (Friedman, the son who was convicted along with his father Arnold on child molestation charges) in prison, Marc would be meeting with a witness who refused to be on camera, Richard would be discovering some obscure, but important piece of Friedman home movie footage, and Jenn would be locating some ancient newspaper article that added a missing piece to the story.
Once I had penetrated the first line of secrecy about the story, I found there were many smart, articulate people willing to talk to me, but the amazing thing was that none of these smart people could agree on anything. So it fell to me to try to develop the truest story I could. If anything, the way it has affected my views on documentary filmmaking is that it has demonstrated for me, in the most direct way, the elusive nature of truth. It has shown me how difficult it is for a filmmaker to capture the truth in a story where the sources are at odds with each other, and how important a responsibility it is to get it right —or at least make it fair—since your version of the events is often the one that will be most remembered.
How do you see "truth" as it relates to documentary filmmaking?
I think that just as we found here, it is often elusive. With Capturing the Friedmans, I would talk to a person on Monday and he would answer some difficult, stubborn question I'd been grappling with, and then that night I'd breathe a sigh of relief that I'd figured out this tricky part of the story that hadn't been making sense to me. Then, Tuesday morning, I'd interview someone else and they'd make me realize the person I spoke to Monday was selling me a bill of goods.
One thing I recognized early on is that memory is totally dynamic. We talk about a "memory bank" as if we store memories in our minds as static images. In fact, our memories sit there and bubble and churn like the electrical impulses they are, evolving over time to suit our needs.
I also felt that while not everyone in the film tells the truth, I don't find most of them to be consciously lying about anything. They are adjusting their memory at the same time they are adjusting their story. So when the police detective in this story tells me something, and we see a photograph a moment later disproving what she says, I don't think it means she was deliberately trying to mislead me. Or at least that's not how she would see it.
How did you gain the family's trust?
First, I became an expert in the case and their family history. I knew that I needed to be the most knowledgeable person about the story if they were going to entrust it to me. After I had spent many months learning about their strange situation, I had to some extent proven my sincerity in telling their story. They had been very negatively portrayed by the media, so there was that hurdle to overcome. But by the same token, some of them were quite happy for me to record a version of the events that was more accurate and complex than the salacious and oversimplified version that appeared in the paper and on TV at the time.
In addition, your subject, like anyone you deal with in life, has to trust you intuitively. In this case, I did not mean the family harm; I meant to tell the fairest story I could, and it was clear that they had an intuitive sense of comfort that that is what I would do. I never made them feel that I would tell their version of the story—just that I would do the work to dig out the truest story I could, and they accepted that.
Another interesting element of this is that the amazing thing about family secrets is that not everyone in the family wants to keep them secret. So in the Friedman family, like most, there were people, like Elaine [the mother], who were more willing to be open about the story than some others. But once one person gives you his or her view, the other family members are more inclined to do so, since they want their side to be represented.
Did you have any moral issues regarding your participation and how the family would be portrayed?
I was concerned at many junctures about my own role and how to manage the situation so that I was telling the story without inflicting any collateral damage, or being insensitive to the family, or even to the other characters in law enforcement, etc.
Did you speak with any other doc filmmakers about their experiences?
I spoke to many documentarians, including Barbara Kopple, Liz Garbus, etc. I got some key advice from Al Maysles, who helped me with the film in a number of ways, and actually shot the first day with me when it was the clown movie. Al recently saw the film and said to me, "Well, you did right by this family." I felt very good about that.
About halfway through the process, I felt I needed an ethics advisor, so I sought out Dr. Robert Coles, who was the James Agee Professor of Ethics at Harvard, but is also an expert in both child psychology and documentary filmmaking [and publisher of DoubleTake magazine]. I found him to be uniquely tuned in to the odd combination of issues that I was grappling with. He essentially said to me, "The fact that you are here talking to me, tells me that you are going to deal with this family in a humane way." And he also said that I needed to mentally shift from feeling like I was telling David's story, and how the film would impact David, to realizing that the constituency was much wider and included the whole family, and that in light of that, it was more important than ever to make the film and to consider everyone's relevance.
Was there any time that you felt you were in over your head as the story evolved?
I never felt that I was in over my head. I thrive on complexity-maybe because I've had a lot of it in my own family—and this was just a giant knot to be untangled. I wasn't sure if I'd ever get to the end of it, but I knew the journey would be fascinating. I do think that the film called upon me to work at my highest level.
Were there any moments that you disliked your subjects?
I never disliked the subjects of the film. The more they show you their humanity, the more you have to sympathize.
What have you learned in hindsight?
I think making the film just confirmed for me something I have known all along; that you should follow your intuition. When I started out making a film about professional birthday party clowns, a lot of my friends sort of gave me this blank stare. But Maysles looked at some of the footage of these quirky, interesting, sweet, heartbreaking, inspiring people and said to me, "Well, there's a lot of humanity there." He really put his finger on it. That is why I was attracted to this subject to begin with, and felt that if I delved into this little unknown world, I would find an interesting story.
What have you learned about yourself as a doc filmmaker?
I am good at knowing what questions to ask, and that is because I have genuine sympathy for the subject. I don't think you can fake that, or be secretly snickering and distancing yourself from your subject. If you don't love people in some fundamental way, you probably can't do this kind of work, or you'll just frustrate yourself. I don't see people as good and bad and see some of them as "monsters." I think when you do that you are putting tremendous distance between yourself and the subject. If you can't see something familiar in these subjects, and you just act like they are "those" people who are somehow of a different brand or type than you, then you won't be very good at bringing their stories out.
Do you have any advice for first-time doc filmmakers?
Follow your intuition. If you think something is interesting to you, keep asking about it. And when the subject is important and even controversial as it often is, you have to apply an even higher standard of care in researching it.
You have become part of the Friedmans' family history. Were you aware of this when you went into the project?
Again, I'm reminded of what Maysles said to me when I showed him the film. He said, "You know, these people are going to be part of your life forever." He described how that happened with the Bouviers after Grey Gardens and with the salesmen after Salesman. I am comfortable with that. I couldn't have it any other way. Otherwise it would feel like a one-night-stand that lasted three years.
Kathleen Fairweather is a documentary filmmaker, DVD producer and former editor of International Documentary.