HBO’s Most Disturbing Documentary Is Also Their Most Enduring

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Capturing the Friedmans

Content warning: The following post contains depictions of sexual assault and child abuse. 

The Oscar-nominated true crime documentary Capturing the Friedmans is a truly disturbing viewing experience. The details of the case are mortifying. But the possibility that those charged may not have been guilty of the crimes of which they were convicted is also quite jarring. Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki (The Jinx) recounts the details of the case through home video, news footage, and interviews with the Friedman family, FBI personnel, and local law enforcement. No matter where the truth lies, one thing is for certain: Capturing the Friedmans is a heartbreaking portrait of a family torn apart. 

The film follows the Friedman family of New York, circa the mid-late 1980s. When patriarch Arnold Freidman is caught by the FBI with child pornography, local law enforcement begins to suspect that Friedman may be using the computer education classes he ran out of his home to victimize his students. From there, the Long Island PD Sex Crimes unit began building a case.

Related Post: 5 True Crime Documentaries You Can’t Unsee

There is a certain amount of evidence that seems to support the suspicions of law enforcement but there is just as much, if not more, that seems to suggest that the Friedmans are innocent, as it pertains to the child abuse and sexual assault charges. The charges were followed by a legal battle that has left many with questions to this day. 

Part of what makes the doc difficult to take in is the level of ambiguity regarding the degree of Arnold Freeman’s guilt and the guilt of his son Jesse. We know, definitively, that Arnold was guilty of possessing child pornography. But did he actually abuse the children in his computer classes? And did his son Jesse aid in the abuse? There are arguments presented that suggest either could be possible. But there are no clear-cut answers to be had. 

As for Jesse’s involvement, or lack of, there is some reason to believe that Jesse was roped in without cause. Many believe him to be innocent of any wrongdoing. However, there are several former students that named him as an active participant in the abuse that was reported. 

The issue with the reports is that no students proactively came forward to their parents or the police with concerns about the computer classes. And that in and of itself is entirely understandable. Coming forward isn’t easy. And not everyone feels comfortable or safe doing so. But what’s perplexing is the lack of any physical evidence. If these children were abused in the manner described by the police, there would have been profound amounts of physical evidence that would have gone entirely overlooked by their parents.

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Further muddying the waters, Arnold Friedman has admitted to having previously had inappropriate sexual relationships with at least two children. But charges were not brought against him in those cases. As such, it seems peculiar that he would willingly admit to having abused children but deny claims that he abused his students. It’s all perplexing. Every known aspect of this case seems to bring more questions than answers. 

The case chronicled in Capturing the Friedmans is easily one of the most puzzling I’ve seen. I don’t have a definitive answer as to which camp I side with. I see reasons to believe both sides. But I ultimately lean towards believing that Arnold and Jesse may be innocent of the abuse charges. 

There are former students that vehemently refute all allegations of abuse. On that basis, along with details regarding the interrogation tactics employed by the Long Island police, there is cause to think that some of the students may have had memories implanted in their minds during rigorous interrogation. The police, in trying to help, may very well have fed details to the students and ultimately brainwashed them into believing they were abused. However, it’s also possible that those that report the absence of any form of abuse have repressed the memories. 

At least one student admits to having reported observing abuse to bring the interrogation to an end. That’s not how justice is served. To berate children to get the answers you’re looking for is a gross miscarriage of justice.  Additionally, several of the students were put under hypnosis to probe for repressed memories, which is a dangerous and unreliable method.  

Uncertainty aside, part of what makes Capturing the Friedmans such a dynamic experience is the characters contained within. The Friedmans are very, very unusual people. Arnold’s wife Elaine is a rather unique character and the way that she responds to some of the horrors she is faced with comes across as quite puzzling. And then you have Elaine and Arnold’s children, each of whom is rather unique in his own right. The most unusual of the bunch is David. David works as a clown and features throughout the doc in clown garb. You really cannot make this stuff up. 

Equally peculiar is the way that the family documented the aftermath of the charges. They were making home videos of their conversations regarding the allegations against Jesse and Arnold. And it’s presented almost like it might be if they were taping a birthday celebration. The entire family is huddled around the table, everything captured on tape. These exchanges are awkward, heated, and downright hostile at times. That they opted to chronicle some of this discourse is truly mind-blowing. But it does serve to paint a thorough and sometimes shocking picture of the impact the charges had on the family. 

Ultimately, I can’t tell you what to make of Capturing the Friedmans. But if you have the stomach for such triggering subject matter, check the film out for yourself and try to make sense of it. If you’re game to experience this harrowing documentary, you can stream it on HBO Max as of the publication of this post. The film is also available on physical media. The Magnolia DVD release includes a bonus disc with 2+ hours of additional commentary on the case. 

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