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.

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