Saturday, March 20, 2004

There is a point in Andrew Jarecki's (exploitative?, unforgettable?, somber?) documentary when accusations just keep flying. Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse have been accused of molesting a dozen children in their neighborhood. Arnold pleads guilty and goes to prison. Jesse also pleads guilty but also claims that he was molested by his father. In a later interview with the director, Jesse says that his lawyer Peter Panaro manipulated him into saying that. Panaro (the perfect criminal lawyer, oily demanour and all) , on the other hand insists that Jesse admitted to him that he was molested. David Friedman furiously accuses his mother of being manipulating bitch. And Elaine Friedman, the most puzzling character in the movie, says that she only did it for her son. These interview clips which appear one after another, in rapid-fire succession is when the documentary, only thoughtful and rivetting so far, literally ventures into sledgehammer emotion territory. There seem to be a thousand unanswered questions: Did Arnold really molest Jesse? Did Arnold and Jesse molest all those children? What really was David's point in filming all the events in his family? Why did David agree to give his tapes to Jarecki? And is it really right for us, as viewers who know literally nothing of this family to watch these tapes where sometimes, the emotions are so naked that I had trouble even looking at the screen?

No questions however are answered. The documentary is both haunting and creepy, in a crazy sort of way. But is it really ambigious? To me, there seems to be no doubt that Jarecki at least, believes in the Friedmans' innocence. He doesn't say that out loud but his camera angles tell a different story. As David Edelstein has pointed out, the lone accuser who persists in his charges is splayed out on the sofa like a hustler. Jarecki's questions to him are sharper and his replies (he claims that he first remembered the sodomy sessions during hypnosis therapy) get increasingly preposterous and contradictory. The interviews with the police officers are cut and arranged together to make them seem like over-enthusiastic law-enforcers who got caught in the rising tide of hysteria about paedophiles and concluded that a man was guilty and then set about proving it. Interestingly, Debbie Nathan, who appears in the movie has written an article about it in the Village Voice

Besides the fact that the documentary exposes a gaping hole in our criminal justice system, there is another, though slightly less important aspect. What exactly is the responsibility of the film-maker to his film? What in particular are the responsibilities of documentary film-makers to their material? There are times, at the end of the film, when Jarecki attaches a soulful melody to David's hand-held footage. The effect is definitely emotionally wrenching, but is it right ? Is the purpose of a documentary to leave the viewer in a state of unbridled emotion? Or is that better left to movies? These are just some questions that this endlessly fascinating documentary gives rise to.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

After watching The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert S McNamara, I was confused. McNamara speaks in a style, that seems in some sense like pure demagoguery. "Emphathize with your enemy", he roars once, like a particularly odious self-help guru. Yet there are several times when I had a lump in my throat, particularly when he talks about Kennedy's assasination. The most fascinating thing about The Fog of War is that it is itself fogggy: what, for instance, was McNamara hoping for when he agreed to e interviewed by Errol Morris? Was he hoping that this would be his chance for clearing his name? Is the man then simply a great actor? Or is this the case of an intellectual who, after a long introspection has come to the conclusion that he made mistakes? (One of the lessons is "Rationality will not save you.".) And yet, as Fred Kaplan contends in his article in Slate, why does he lie?

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

While this year's Oscar ceremony was, well...positively tame (remember Michael Moore last year?), the closest thing to a controversy was Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans. Here is a link to Sharon Waxman's article in the New York Times where the victims allege that Jarecki deliberately added the ambiguity (for which his film has been widely praised) when in fact, (so to speak) the Friedman case was really cut-and-dry. Victims Say Film on Molesters Distorts Facts

At the same time, here is an article in Slate that says that Jarecki by maintaining a studiously neutral tone, lost a huge opportunity for saving an innocent man.

I must say, it looks bad for Jarecki. He is being criticized for being ambiguous but from both sides. All said, Capturing the Friedmans is definitely a fascinating documentary, but the well-deserved winner on Oscar-nite was Errol Morris (the worst acceptance speech of the night, topping even Sean Penn's pretentious drawl) for his superlative The Fog of War: Eleven lessons from the life of Robert McNamara.

And oh, Hurray for the Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings!!!!!