Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Reviews of two films by Jeffrey Overstreet.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite story books was about a tiny monster called a White Lie. It appeared when a small boy lied to his parents. And then, to cover up the lie, he had to tell another lie, and the monster grew. This went on and on, until the bloated white beast no longer fit under the bed or in the closet … in fact, he threatened to blow up the house.

This same story is retold this summer in two different dramas, stories so riveting and heartbreaking they would give Shakespeare’s tragedies a run for their money. Both focus on American families in which lies are covered up — specifically lies that conceal the physical and sexual abuse of children. In both cases, the tension, distrust, selfishness, and anger form a volatile mix. Things fall apart until the families reach the point of complete disintegration. No other films this year are likely to match these for shocking revelations, complex and compelling characters, and profound impacts on their audiences.

The most remarkable thing of all: they’re both documentaries.

If 2003 stands out from other film years, it will be for three distinctive developments: an overdose of comic book adaptations, the advent of two-part movies (Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions, Kill Bill vol. ½), and an increasing number of must-see documentaries. In fact, at this point in the year, more documentaries have earned raves than dramas or comedies. The most suspenseful film of the summer was Spellbound, the most beautiful was Winged Migration.

Now we have Capturing the Friedmans and Stevie. And while both are concerned with the consequences of simple lies and gross abuse towards young people, they are very different, primarily in the way that they were made. As a result, both are galvanizing experiences that you are unlikely to forget, but one leaves us sick to our stomachs and repulsed, while the other reaches higher and farther, becoming a story that is as inspiring and moving as it is troubling.


Capturing the Friedmans
Director – Andrew Jarecki; director of photography - Adolfo Doring; editor - Richard Hankin; music - Andrea Morricone; producers - Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling. Starring – The Friedman family: Arnold, Elaine, David, Seth, Jesse and Howard; and John McDermott, Detective Frances Galasso, Detective Anthony Sgueglia, Joseph Onorato, Judd Maltin and Judge Abbey Boklan. Hit the Ground Running Films. 107 minutes. Not rated.


Director Andrew Jarecki had no idea what he was getting into when he began a documentary about Silly Billy, New York’s most successful party clown, David Friedman. As he observed the man behind the rubber nose and balloon animals, he caught the scent of a much larger story, and learned that Friedman had been involved in a scandal that rocked the Long Island town of Great Neck.

Friedman comes from an upper-middle-class Jewish family, and was remarkably generous in his testimonies to Jarecki about the events that led to the destruction of all his mother and father had invested in their three sons. But it was not just David’s testimony illustrating the story. As it turns out, the Friedman men were obsessed with video cameras. Although David’s mother Elaine was not so fond of them, his father Arnold enthusiastically cooperated with his sons David, Jesse, and Seth in the video documentation of everything from family vacations to dinner conversations.

Thus, in the mid-80s when Arnold was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography, the boys began filming their disbelief, their debates about their father’s level of guilt. They even filmed Arnold being taken away from the house.

That was just the beginning. Soon, they were filming their own emotional breakdowns as the community came alive with accusations about perverse sex crimes that allegedly took place in the Friedmans basement, where Arnold, with the help of his sons, taught computer classes to children from the surrounding neighborhood. Many children testified that they had not only been molested, but also raped, as Arnold supposedly lured them into shockingly perverse games. When the middle son Jesse, at that time 18 years old, was also implicated in the crimes, things started splitting at the seams.

The most compelling thing about Capturing the Friedmans is not, however, the details of the crimes-although Jarecki does devote a good deal of attention to giving us pictures we probably did not need to have in our minds. He makes the film more than just a dissection of human wickedness by dishing out the details in the same way that the news media did, so that we have healthy feelings of outrage and dismay over what might have happened.

And then… here is the brilliant maneuver… he shows us just how such testimonies can come as the product of media hype and hysteria. As an investigator begins investigating the investigators, and as she pursues the questions posed to the “victims” in a different manner, she gets very different answers. Soon, we do not know what to believe. We watch the family go through the court proceedings. We watch the kids “clowning” outside the courthouse right before the verdict, behavior that was judged by the investigators as hardness of heart, but which may appear to you as a desperate way of coping with the stress and dissolution of all these boys have known.

Capturing the Friedmans is a masterpiece of documentation regarding the consequences of a single lie and how that lie can grow and multiply, wreaking havoc wherever it goes. But above and beyond that, it teaches us to guard our tempers and our assumptions, to seek out the truth of a matter for ourselves rather than relying on the testimony of “experts.”

And for better or worse, we may never know what happened to those students in the Friedmans’ basement. Before the end of the film, everyone involved is guilty in some way, shape, or form. Even the Friedman boys who cannot be connected to the crimes by the testimonies or the evidence soil their own reputations with the selfish, compassionless spirits they show towards their mother. In fact, no one in the Friedman family expresses more than a flinch of conscience over the suffering-whatever the specifics-endured by the neighbors. All they seem to want is a return to the illusion of happiness in which they grew up. They do not even seem terribly disturbed by the seemingly undeniable evidence that convicts their father of subscribing to child pornography.

As in a Shakespeare tragedy, by the end of the story, almost everyone has been destroyed in one way or another. But I wonder if we haven’t been tarnished too by the experience. Yes, the film masterfully plays its audience, bringing them around to realization of their own willingness to buy what the TV News tells them. But it also feels like a sort of emotional pornography. We are made to sit through dinner table scenes in which the family members hurl bile and virtriol. We are given intimate views of the boys as they film each other during the breakdown. We even see David’s video diary where he spews hatred and rage and eventually distintegrates in grief.

Should we really be watching this? Wasn’t the obsession with filming and sharing what should have been private merely symptomatic of some deep sickness, some chronic self-absorption? A good documentary about pornography would not necessarily expose us to much of it, just as a good class on viruses would not force its students to have direct contact with them. Ultimately, such stuff should never have been filmed and shown to others in the first place.

Does that mean documentaries should not be made about human failings? Should we keep cameras away from the troubles of others?

The answer lies in the approach of the documentarian, in the spirit with which he or she does his work. What bothers this reviewer most about Capturing the Friedmans is Jarecki’s style of shocking the audience, of exploiting his treasure trove of intimate footage by dishing out the juicy bits. Much of this information could have been delivered in a way that respected the Friedmans, even if they did not respect each other.

Another new documentary of sin and consequences, Stevie, stands out in sharp contrast, suggesting how Jarecki might have done more with Capturing the Friedmans than merely turning our stomachs. Where Friedmans treats sin as horror, Stevie is portrayed with affection, compassion, and love so palpable that our hearts go out to both victim and criminal, and we (hopefully) learn that by looking closely at the heart of  lost and violent men we can find it in our hearts to love our enemies.


Director – Steve James; directors of photography - Gordon Quinn and Dana Kupper; editors - Peter Gilbert and Steve James; music - William Haugse; produced - Steve James, Adam Singer and Gordon Quinn. Lions Gate Films. 140 minutes. Not rated.


Documentarian Steve James, the filmmaker who gave us the unforgettable documentary Hoop Dreams, did not do what most filmmakers would have done with the story of Stevie.

Stephen Fielding is a piece of work. He is what he appears to be: crude, rude, rough-edged, damaged, and in need of a good cleaning up in every way. His past is a laundry list of misbehavior, and he admits that many of his most wicked achievements have gone undiscovered. Anyone with a nose for a scandal could have dug up plenty on this guy.

But James is too conscientious, too caring. Moreover, he walks past any opportunity to be merely an exploiter of reality. This is not “reality TV” as we’ve come to know it. He finds art in the human experience. And, in this viewer’s opinion, he has crafted one of the great works of documentary art out of the life of a serious loser. It culminates with one of the great gospel songs of the last decade, and it earns the privilege.

James refuses to approach the case of Stephen Fielding like an investigator hunting for gory details. In Stevie, he tells us the story of how he came upon such a memorable, heartbreaking drama, and how, through observing, he discovered he could not be merely an objective witness, but got his own hands a bit dirty in the process.

In a skim-the-surface summary, Stevie is an account of how a child, abandoned by his parents and abused in foster homes, became a wrathful and dangerous criminal. But underneath it is a lament for a brother, a friend, whose heart was torn in two by a battle of good versus evil. It is a testament to the power of a good role model in the life of an impressionable young man. And it bears witness to the fact that grownups who manifest a childlike spirit can cut through a jungle of lies to find glimmers of hope and opportunities for redemption in even the most damaged of hearts.

10 years before this project began, Steve James came into the life of young Stephen Fielding through the Big Brother program. That small step of compassion and goodwill formed a bond between them that would come to haunt James as he moved on in the mid-80s and lost contact with Fielding. The film picks up with his return to see what a decade has done in the life of this young lost soul. He takes us to Pomona, Illinois, so we are there to see him apologetically reenter the young man’s life.

Stevie is a prime example of a child’s need for a loving father and a mother. He was born out of wedlock, never knew his father and remained unwanted. His mother Bernice wouldn’t divulge any information on the events that brought him into the world, and treated him like an embarrassing heap of garbage. In fact, she disowned him, after beating him so severely that for a spell he couldn’t speak. When his mother remarried, Stevie was handed off to his stepfather’s mother to be raised.

“Grandma” was the first to show Stevie a little charity. She took on the responsibility, broken-hearted for the poor boy, showing compassion. Later, he made the rounds of foster homes and juvenile centers-some hellish (where he was raped and beaten and abused), some merely adequate, and one… one special pair… his life’s best taste of Divine Love.

He is 23 when we see him here. He’s cocky, wearing battered muscle shirts and motorcycle gear. He’s an alcoholic. He’s in deep denial of his condition and his troubling future. Sometimes he’s explosively honest about what has happened to him, about how it makes him feel, and about how he’s likely to respond, even if fulfilling those rash vows will pile another arrest on top of his already dismaying criminal record. He’s justifiably suspicious of all people, and yet somehow he still holds enough grace to care for his sister Brenda, even though his mother always showed Brenda favor. While hate still boils within him, at times he can muster enough grace to tolerate even Bernice herself, who lives just a stone’s throw (or better, a gunshot) away. Before our time with him is over, we’ve even seen him take astonishing leaps to try and grant some of his mother’s wishes, resurrecting feeble threads of familial love.

But the crisis at the heart of the picture comes between James’s first return to Stevie’s life in 1995, and his second return in 1997. During that gap, Stevie is charged with molesting an 8-year-old girl.

While James is thankfully interested in more important things than the gory details, he does give us enough information to confirm in our minds that Stevie, whatever the details, did indeed do something terribly wrong. And a heartbreaking encounter with the righteously outraged mother of the victim hammers the gravity of the situation home.

But James’ ambition reaches beyond merely showing us the damage of neglect and the severity of sexual crimes. He wants to show us that all of these flawed human beings — Stevie, Bernice, Brenda, and their handful of friends and acquaintances — are redeemable. Bernice, even though she’s the boy’s mother and now his neighbor, remains walled off, carefully concealing details that would probably incriminate her further in this wreckage called Stevie. She is willing to be filmed and interviewed, and seems completely blind to the consequences of her actions, until James captures some pivotal events that bring a faint ray of light into her dark heart.

James’s efforts to trace the origins of the damage are in no way a justification of Stevie’s crimes. Rather, they help the viewer understand his criminal mind, and they affirm for us that everyone involved… Bernice, Bernice’s parents, the foster homes, Stevie’s Aryan “friends”, and even Steve James himself… bears some of the responsibility for what has happened.

And thus, by viewing such a powerfully persuasive example, we too are now responsible to act on what we have seen.

Thus it become a remarkably moving experience to meet people who have done their part in Stevie’s life, who have been admirable role models. One couple in particular, the pair who were Stevie’s first and best foster parents, are a Christian couple who have a unique gift for communicating with, connecting with, and sympathizing with lost souls. Although circumstances drew them away and required them to give Stevie to another family, when we finally meet them they win our hearts and our admiration for their longsuffering attitude toward him. They are a shining example of what parents should be.

And there are other figures of grace in the picture. Stevie’s guardian angel, his greatest example of unconditional love, is his relentlessly loyal and optimistic girlfriend Tonya Gregory. She is at first glance a naively smitten girl, limited by a nerve disease and developmental disability. Her disorder splits her facial expressions into a sort of abstract art, something profoundly representative of her dilemma. Half of her face seems hardened by hardship and brutal realities, while the other is lively, bright, and good-humored. And in everything she says, in every effort to communicate clearly to Steve James, she reveals a bottomless well of sadness and desire.

And yet, she is no fool. She is not acting out of naiveté or dysfunction like the prone-to-destruction dreamer-girls of Lars Von Trier’s contrived and emotionally abusive films. James is not exploiting her. She knows full well who she is and what her limitations are. Yet she chooses to love for whatever feeble fruit she can bring out of the situation. On close examination, she is perhaps the wisest and most generous soul in the film. Her closest cinematic cousin is not Bess of Breaking the Waves, who naively does the bidding of a cruel man… but rather she compares to Sister Helen Prejean, who stands beside a confessed villain, offering harsh truth and yet unconditional love to the end, so that the judgment that falls on him lands as painfully, or perhaps more painfully, on her.

Tonya’s best friend, an even more strictly disabled young woman, is also given the spotlight for an unforgettable scene. In her presence, viewers may feel the initial discomfort of being in the intensive care unit of a hospital. But after listening to this young woman elucidate her thoughts on Tonya’s dilemma, the scene ends up feeling more like an experience with an angel in a chapel. Tonya’s friend speaks with the unnerving directness and discernment of God’s own messengers. I was deeply shaken by this brief encounter, in a way unlike any other moment in my moviegoing history. I am amazed, and grateful, that Steve James was there with his camera to capture such piercing encounters. Recalling this scene even now brings tears to my eyes. This is not the ruthlessly lurid detail-grubbing of Capturing the Friedmans — it is the preservation of glory, for the edification of the viewer.

Stevie’s stepsister Brenda is also a figure of considerable generosity and support. Although she does keep very strict boundaries around her brother, we can understand why she is sometimes harsh with him. Brenda has a family of her own to protect, and while she loves her brother, she recognizes that he is a dangerous man. She is clearly the healthiest member of the Fielding family, having escaped the physical (but not the emotional or psychological) abuse of her mother. She has also found true love and devotes herself to breaking the family cycle of abuse. When the possibility of Brenda’s own pregnancy temporarily shifts the focus of the story, our sympathy for Stevie is suddenly altered by a more immediate realization of the risks he poses even to his loved ones.

The most troubling scenes of all come as James observes Stevie’s dalliances with the devil. We see the effects of his indulgence in alcohol. We see him conversing, cautiously and nervously, with hardened thugs of the Aryan nation, who offer to stick up for him. But we also recognize that their juvenile behavior is inspired out of a glimmer of sympathy for him… that he has grown up in a cruel world like their own.

The rest of the film chronicles Stevie’s reluctant encounters with a lawyer, his stubborn refusals to accept legal counsel that requires him to do anything difficult, and his eventual courtroom trials. Tonya remains by his side. Brenda does what she has to do to protect herself and her fragile circumstances. Bernice, miraculously changed by her return to the church, plays a part.

Just as he did in Hoop Dreams, Steve James heroically avoids sentimentality in Stevie. He does not wrap things up with platitudes or force himself into false optimism. The conclusion is crushing. Stevie has not been crafted or manipulated in order to shock and surprise us like some crime thriller. It has been designed to reveal human hearts, and to lead us through small triumphs and crushing disappointments, for the purpose of revelation and inspiration … to show us the effects of role models and care and concern.

It is a rare joy to see Christians portrayed honestly and powerfully in a film. James shows the charismatic believers in Bernice’s church to be a bunch of flawed human beings worshipping and praising God for what he has done with their varied lives. We see what a powerful effect such rituals as baptism, prayer, and the embrace of God’s people can have on directionless, self-loathing wrecks like Stevie and Bernice.

And as we look back on Stevie’s life, the most positive influence he has had are the Christian foster parents who loved him, and still love him, unconditionally… whose goodness break his heart open in their presence so that he freely confesses his sins and then falls into their embrace. In the presence of so much love, Tonya breaks down, weeping that “This is what he needs. A role model.” There will be some weeping in the audience as well.

Stevie is also an effective work of art about the limitations of the law, and the need for grace, even if the wheels of “justice” are irreversibly in motion. I will never excuse people like Stevie of their personal responsibility, but I will never write them off as being solely responsible, or as being some kind of unexplainable monster or other species… monsters are made, not born.

The film is a potent reminder that grace, healing, and resolution are possible for the most broken of families. But it also shows us that many of those who plunge into the abyss are accelerated there by our unwillingness to provide ourselves as role models. The subject of the film is, at first glance, Stevie. But ultimately, the subject is Steve James… and us… how we so easily put out of our minds those who need us most, and what lives we might yet have the opportunity to save. The camera has taken us where our guilt and our lack of faith fear to tread. But because the filmmaker is the assuring presence of a fellow failure, we trust him. He does not thrust the ugly details into our faces… he is not preoccupied with the details of sex crimes as the filmmaker of Capturing the Friedmans has. He is interested in redemption… not just Stevie’s, but his own… and thus, by extension, ours.

I come away from the film feeling as though I have known Stevie and his family for years. I wish I could visit Tonya and share with her how her unconditional love for a lost soul has blessed me. I wish I could listen to her friend and appeal to her for counsel. And I hope, I sincerely hope, that I can be for someone what that blessed foster family were for Stevie… a sure and guiding light in the darkness.

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