Documentary goes inside child molestation case


On the cover of the DVD version of Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, released last week by HBO, is the question "Who do you believe?"

When Jarecki's acclaimed documentary about the Friedman child molestation case of 1988 opened in theaters last May, it provided plenty of information for viewers to make their own judgments on the merits of the charges brought by prosecutors on Long Island against Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse, who both pleaded guilty and went to prison. Now the DVD, loaded with extras, comes along to reinforce or perhaps challenge previous opinions.

DVDs routinely expand on films and their making, of course, but here the DVD has a chance to play a part in a continuing judicial process. On Jan. 7, noting disclosures in Jarecki's documentary, a motion was filed in Nassau County Court to vacate the conviction of Jesse Friedman, who was paroled in 2001 after serving 13 years in prison. (His father died in prison in 1995.) Serving as an addendum, the DVD, with its more than 30 short segments about the original investigation and the Friedman family, has been submitted to bolster Friedman's case.

Whom to believe? On one side are the police of Great Neck, N.Y., who brought charges after interviewing scores of children who took computer classes in Arnold Friedman's basement. On the other are Arnold and especially Jesse Friedman, who in a fresh interview that is on the DVD but not in the movie further explains his guilty plea and professes his innocence.

Many other questions came up when the movie opened. "We heard from theater managers that there was a problem," Jarecki said. "People weren't leaving after the film. They were sitting in their seats, arguing about things, so they couldn't clean the theater."

Jarecki and his fellow filmmakers began interviewing those who lingered. One segment on the second disc answers frequently asked questions about the case and the members of the Friedman family. What are their relationships today? Why did they record their lives and troubles in such detail on videotape, an extraordinary part of the movie?

Another segment goes into the investigation and the methods used by the sex-crimes unit of the Great Neck police. It is here that most of the contention rests. Did the police coerce fictitious stories of abuse from children?

In a commentary, Jarecki and Richard Hankin, the movie's editor and co-producer, say they worked to maintain a balance between the sides and tested that impartiality with audiences in preview screenings. Nevertheless it is hard to avoid the feeling that from the movie's standpoint the charges of violent sexual assault were badly flawed.

The extras on the DVD's second disc emphasize the film's doubts. Detectives directly contradict each other on the methods of questioning, with one saying it was important to have a child say what happened without prompting and the other holding that the child must be told that the questioner knows what happened and the child had better go along with it. One segment of the DVD includes the transcript of a tape recording, secretly made by a parent, of a detective being abusive and threatening when a child denies he was molested.

Both the film and DVD imply an assembly-line investigation that went from the discovery of pornographic publications in the Friedman house to the assumption by investigators that the Friedmans must be generating such materials themselves by filming molestations of Arnold Friedman's computer students. A journalist who has examined this and other child-molestation cases describes what she calls a national hysteria about so-called sex rings in the late 1980s and, in Great Neck's case, an inclination to jump to conclusions because the investigation needed to produce what the community wanted to believe.

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