Capturing the Friedmans, this year’s Memento, nabbed the Grand Jury Prize Award at the Sundance Film Festival months ago and sent the film industry buzzing. How did a guy who set out to make a light-hearted documentary about Silly Billy, one of New York City’s better-known children’s party clowns, eventually find himself overhauling the entire project to create the year’s most mind-bending tale—a tale about sex, lies and old film reels that revolved around the criminal case that dismantled the clown’s entire family? To this day, Jarecki remains stumped over the Friedman case.
“I always did feel that the truth is a very difficult thing to figure out,” Jarecki says in a recent interview with GT. He couldn’t be more right, and he proves it in a documentary that explores—in disturbing detail—the elusive nature of truth.
After interviewing Silly Billy, aka David Friedman, for his proposed doc several years ago, Jarecki felt compelled to dig deeper. Why? Silly Billy had an angry side. Jarecki soon realized that the Friedman’s was a deeply-layered, hard-to-nail epic. He’d recalled the headlines, how, in the upper middle-class Long Island suburb of Great Neck, the police rushed into the Friedman home, searched it, seized boxes of “evidence” and arrested patriarch Arnold Friedman and his 18-year-old son, Jesse. Father and son were indicted for hundreds of jaw-dropping crimes. In his docu-drama, Jarecki would go beyond answering yes or no to the following question: did father and son perform sexual acts with the young boys they taught in the after-school computer class situated in an office within the Friedman home?
Jarecki interviews with the family, the investigators involved behind the case, and countless others showcase a drama behind the drama, and, more disturbingly, the slippery sides of perception and judgment.
“At a certain point, it became obvious that the story was much more deeper than imaged,” Jarecki says. “Everyone who I spoke to added a new dimension to it. I soon found out it would be long and tortuous and fascinating process.”
In re-examining the Friedman case, and the media blitz that shook the community, revealed different versions of the “truth.”
“I really did feel that when I thought I had the truth pegged, it would just slither away down a corridor and disappear,” he says. “That wasn’t true everyday, but it was true in the details everyday. I think the film is about how hard it is to tell what happened. It’s easy to prove a cat is sitting in a chair, it’s not easy to prove if a cat once sat on chair.”
Of the seemingly numbed-out family matriarch Elaine Friedman, he says, “she was nothing if not colorful … I knew she was going to be complicated … but you have to it put into Elaine’s perspective, because what an insane position she inherited. But then I understand the boys (her sons) too. She pulled the strings either way and that was not an easy situation to manage. I would not hand the reigns over to anybody else. I am not sure David would be the right person to trust either [after the media attention].”
Finding himself walking through a maze of personality profiles, Jarecki says one of the detectives involved in the case, Frances Galasso, stood out.
“When I first met her,” Jarecki recalls, “and she said ‘the one thing to worry about is just charging someone with this crime is enough to ruin a life, so you want to be sure.’ When she said that, I thought, ‘wow, she is a person I can trust. She is articulate and conscientious.’ And all that made me feel like I wanted to hear her version of the story and be satisfied with that on some level. But that was a long time ago and since then, a lot of things have happened—10 minutes after that statement on film, she totally impeaches herself … she [says] there were foot-high stacks of porn [in the Friedman house] and because she wears stripes, and is very articulate when she speaks, you believe her.”
Ultimately, it would Jesse Friedman who became most captivating.
“I had a hundred chances to test him; to see if he would spin his story and the hundreth time he had given me a fair interpretation of what he experienced,” Jarecki says. “I found that he didn’t have anything to hide from me and I gave that a lot value in my mind. And it felt that almost everyone in the film had something to hide at some point. There are very few people in the film that when you look at them, they give you straight answer.”
What stands out throughout Jarecki’s documentary is this: truth is a curious shape-shifter maneuvered by people’s own perceptions and understand of things.
“I was glad to see that the harder you look at it, it’s harder to find truth in a way, and that over time, memories evolve,” Jarecki says. “It was interesting to see Arnold because I am father, I have a father, and I thought a lot about the response of a father to his son. A lot of times we think perhaps we haven’t been defended appropriately and in my view that was something that happened here. That stays with you. Whatever happened here, Jesse was a real casualty.”
The truth: Does he believe the Arthur and Jesse Friedman were guilty as charged?
“If I thought that if it happened the way the police said it happened, I wouldn’t have made the movie,” Jarecki says. “I’ll tell you one thing: the Friedmans didn’t stand a chance.”