Capturing the Friedmans

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Capturing the Friedmans
Capturing the Friedmans poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAndrew Jarecki
Produced byAndrew Jarecki
Marc Smerling
StarringArnold Friedman
Elaine Friedman
David Friedman
Jesse Friedman
CinematographyAdolfo Doring
Edited byRichard Hankin
Music byAndrea Morricone
Bill Harrington
Distributed byMagnolia Pictures
Release dates
  • January 17, 2003 (2003-01-17) (Sundance)
  • May 30, 2003 (2003-05-30) (United States)
Running time
107 minutes
CountryUnited States

Capturing the Friedmans is a 2003 HBO documentary film directed by Andrew Jarecki. It focuses on the 1980s investigation of Arnold and Jesse Friedman for child molestation. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2003.[1] Some of the Friedmans' alleged victims and family members wrote to the Awards Committee, protesting the nomination.[2]


Jarecki initially was making a short film, Just a Clown (which he later completed), about children's birthday party entertainers in New York City, including the popular clown David Friedman ("Silly Billy"). During his research, Jarecki learned that David Friedman's brother, Jesse,[3] and his father, Arnold, had pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse, and the family had an archive of home movies. Jarecki interviewed some of the children involved and ended up making a film focusing on the Friedmans.[4]


The investigation into Arnold Friedman's life started in 1984, when the U.S. Postal Service intercepted a magazine of child pornography sent to him from the Netherlands. In 1987, investigators searched his home in Great Neck, New York, and found a collection of child pornography. Upon learning that Arnold taught computer classes for preteen boys in his home, authorities interviewed the students, some of whom alleged they had been subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, a young adult who assisted Arnold with the classes. The two men were arrested and accused of committing hundreds of crimes, throwing the community into turmoil. They were eventually able to get out on bail and returned home to prepare for court, hanging their hopes for acquittal on the lack of physical evidence against them and reports of the coercive tactics and leading questions that had been used to question the students.

Around this time, David, Arnold's eldest son, got a camcorder, and he recorded hours of home videos during this period. The videos were not made with the intention of showing them to the public, but the film incorporates some of this footage, which consists of family dinners, conversations, and arguments. While Arnold's three sons (Seth, the middle son, chose to not participate in the documentary) believed Arnold and Jesse were innocent, Elaine, Arnold's wife and the mother of the boys, was unsure of her husband's innocence, and she encouraged Arnold to confess, hoping that would somehow help Jesse's case. Arnold did plead guilty to multiple charges of sodomy and sexual abuse and was sentenced to prison. Jesse later also plead guilty; his charges were not reduced after his father's plea, but he said his father had molested him as a child to try to get a less severe sentence (Jesse has since stated that this was just a legal ploy).

After their pleas, both Arnold and Jesse said that no abuse had taken place during the computer classes, but they felt, given the media coverage of the case and the climate in Great Neck at the time, they would have been convicted and given harsher sentences if they had gone to trial. However, in a document Arnold wrote while under house arrest after he was bailed out of jail, he did claim that, when he was 13, he sexually abused his younger brother, Howard, who was eight years old at the time (Howard is interviewed in the film and says he does not remember being abused by his brother), and admitted to, as an adult, molesting two boys who were not his students (Jesse's lawyer, Peter Panaro, who visited Arnold in a Wisconsin federal prison, is interviewed in the film and says Arnold admitted this to him as well). Jesse, in a statement subsequent to the film, said his father also told him and his brothers that he sexually abused Howard.[5]

Arnold Friedman died in prison in 1995 after taking an overdose of antidepressants, leaving a $250,000 life insurance benefit to Jesse. Jesse Friedman was released from New York's Clinton Correctional Facility in 2001 after serving 13 years of his sentence. As of 2013, he was running an online book-selling business.[6]


Capturing the Friedmans won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival[7] and received predominantly positive reviews. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, it has an approval rating of 97% based on 153 reviews, with an average rating of 8.46/10; the website's critical consensus calls the film: "A haunting depiction of a disintegrating family, and a powerful argument on the elusiveness of truth".[8] The film was ranked as the 7th best-reviewed movie of 2003 on the website's best of the year list.[9] On Metacritic, it has a score of 90 out of 100, based on 39 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[10] The low-budget documentary was a success with audiences as well, its $3 million theatrical gross making it a surprise hit.[11]

Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times wrote:

"Mr. Jarecki so recognizes the archetypal figures in the Friedman home that he knows to push things any further through heavy-handed assessment would be redundant." He praised Jarecki for operating under the premise "that first impressions can't be trusted and that truth rests with each person telling the story."[12]

The Washington Post columnist Desson Howe offered similar praise, writing:

"It's testament to Jarecki's superbly wrought film that everyone seems to be, simultaneously, morally suspect and strikingly innocent as they relate their stories and assertions ... This is a film about the quagmire of mystery in every human soul."[13]

Similarly, Roger Ebert wrote,

"The film is an instructive lesson about the elusiveness of facts, especially in a legal context. Sometimes guilt and innocence are discovered in court, but sometimes, we gather, only truths about the law are demonstrated."[7]

The film was voted the fifth film in the 2005 Channel 4 programme The 50 Greatest Documentaries.

In one of the few negative reviews, Los Angeles Times writer Kenneth Turan wrote a critique of both the film and Jarecki, stating:

"Jarecki's pose of impartiality gets especially troublesome for audiences when it enables him to evade responsibility for dealing with the complexities of his material."[14]

Criticism intensified as Jarecki's choice not to pursue his firm belief in the Friedmans' innocence became publicly known. In his review, Ebert recounted Jarecki's statement at the Sundance Film Festival that he did not know whether Arnold and Jesse Friedman were guilty of child molestation and roundly praised Jarecki for communicating this ambiguity.[7] It has since emerged that Jarecki funded Jesse Friedman's appeal.[15]

Writing for The Village Voice, Debbie Nathan, who was hired by Jarecki as a consultant after having been interviewed for the film, said of Jarecki:

"Polling viewers at Sundance in January, he was struck by how they were split over Arnold and Jesse's guilt. Since then, he's crafted a marketing strategy based on ambiguity, and during Q&As and interviews, he has studiously avoided taking a stand."[16]

There was also a critical blacklash due to footage Jarecki left out on purpose.[citation needed] The film omitted a third defendant in the case, Ross Goldstein, a teenage neighbor who turned state's evidence and corroborated some of the children's accusations.[17] Additionally, Jarecki omitted a tearful confession of guilt Jesse Friedman made from prison on Geraldo Rivera's talk show in 1989; during the interview, he also detailed how his father had molested him as a child.[18]

Additional materials[edit]

The 2003 DVD release of the film included a second DVD: "Capturing the Friedmans -- Outside the Frame". It included:

  • additional home-video footage shot by the Friedmans
  • numerous deleted and extended scenes from the film
  • footage from Q&A sessions following screenings of the film
  • updates on Jesse's life after he was released from prison
  • Just a Clown, Jarecki's 20-minute short documentary featuring David Friedman that led to Capturing the Friedmans
  • A ROM section with several documents from the family and the case

There was footage on the bonus disc of an altercation that occurred during a Q&A session following the film's screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, in which Frances Galasso, the retired head of the Nassau County Police's Sex Crimes Unit, argues with investigative journalist Debbie Nathan, as well as a speech by trial judge Abbey Boklan from the film's premiere in Great Neck. Both Galasso and Boklan claim the film excluded evidence that points to Jesse's guilt, such as his interview with Geraldo Rivera and the existence of Ross Goldstein, the third defendant, who served time in prison after pleading guilty to charges of child molestation and even named two additional co-conspirators, though they remained unindicted. (Goldstein is not named in the film, but it is said in one of the DVD extras that he declined to be interviewed. One of the unindicted co-conspirators claims in the same section that he and the fifth man were falsely accused by Goldstein.) During the Tribeca Q&A, Jesse's lawyer at the time of the case, Peter Panaro, said he advised Jesse not to appear on Rivera's talk show (Panaro was also present on the show), and even had Jesse sign an affidavit saying he was doing so against legal advice.[19]

Subsequent legal developments[edit]

In August 2010, a federal appeals court upheld the conviction of Jesse Friedman on technical legal grounds,[20] but took the unusual step of urging prosecutors to reopen Friedman's case, saying that there was a "reasonable likelihood that Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted".[21] The decision cited "overzealousness" by law enforcement officials swept up in the hysteria over child molestation in the 1980s.

Following the appeals court ruling, the Nassau District Attorney's office began a three-year investigation led by District Attorney Kathleen M. Rice. On June 24, 2013, the report was released. In a 155-page report,[22] the district attorney's office concluded that none of four issues raised in a strongly-worded 2010 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was substantiated by the evidence. Instead, it concluded, "By any impartial analysis, the reinvestigation process prompted by Jesse Friedman, his advocates and the Second Circuit, has only increased confidence in the integrity of Jesse Friedman's guilty plea and adjudication as a sex offender." Jesse Friedman was regarded as a "narcissist" and a "psychopathic deviant" by a psychiatrist his attorney hired to conduct an evaluation.[23] Judge Boklan was said to have been subject to "selectively edited and misleading film portrayals in Capturing the Friedmans".

The work was guided and overseen by a four-member independent advisory panel, which included Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, one of the country's leading advocates for overturning wrongful convictions, and a member of O. J. Simpson's defense team.[24] However, Scheck has subsequently complained that key documents were not available to the panel,[25] and urged the matter be reopened.[26]

Prior to the report's release, new details emerged, including letters and affidavits[27] from some of the alleged victims in which they recanted their accusations and implicated the police in coercing their statements.[6]

The Village Voice conducted an interview with Jesse Friedman,[28] who described himself as "freakishly optimistic", and also reported that Ross Goldstein, a childhood friend of his, had broken his 25 year silence[29] to explain he had been coerced into cooperating with the district attorney's office: "He told the review panel of how he'd been coerced into lying, how prosecutors coached him through details of the Friedmans' computer lab, which he'd never even seen, and how he was imprisoned for something he'd never done."[30]

On February 10, 2015, Jesse Friedman was back in state appellate court seeking to have Nassau County prosecutors turn over to him the remainder of their evidence against him.[31] That December, a state Appeals Court found that the prosecutors did not have to release the records. Because Friedman pled guilty and there was no trial, a spokesperson for the Nassau County District Attorney claimed the records of witnesses who did not testify are confidential, and the law does not mandate their disclosure.[32] However, on November 27, 2017, the NYS Court of Appeals reversed the lower court,[33] and overturned the DA's claim regarding "confidential witnesses", and ordered the lower court to oversee disclosure of Friedman case files to the defendant.[34]


  1. ^ King, Loren (December 19, 2010). "Making dysfunction work for him". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on January 16, 2018. Retrieved December 18, 2013.
  2. ^ Waxman, Sharon (February 24, 2004). "Victims Say Film on Molesters Distorts Facts". The New York Times. Retrieved April 24, 2011.
  3. ^ "Jesse Friedman's Website". Retrieved January 22, 2022.
  4. ^ Byrne, Peter (May 20, 2003). "Review of Capturing the Friedmans". BMJ. 328 (7444): 901. doi:10.1136/bmj.328.7444.901. S2CID 56946426. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
  5. ^ "Presentation by Jesse Friedman". May 17, 2012. Archived from the original on December 3, 2012. Retrieved October 20, 2014.
  6. ^ a b Applebome, Peter (June 15, 2013). "Reinvestigating the Friedmans - The New York Times". The New York Times. Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c Ebert, Roger (June 6, 2003). "Capturing the Friedmans". The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  8. ^ "Capturing the Freidmans (2003)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved April 10, 2018.
  9. ^ "Top 100 Movies of 2003". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on September 24, 2011. Retrieved April 10, 2018.
  10. ^ "Capturing the Friedmans". Metacritic.
  11. ^ "Capturing the Friedmans (2003)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved April 10, 2018.
  12. ^ Mitchell, Elvis (May 30, 2003). "Capturing the Friedmans". The New York Times. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  13. ^ Howe, Desson (June 13, 2003). "The Friedmans' Tale of the Tapes". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  14. ^ Turan, Kenneth (June 13, 2003). "Cameras on, judgments off". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on August 24, 2003. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  15. ^ Vitello, Paul (January 11, 2004). "Documentary's haunting tale of abuse". Newsday. Archived from the original on November 17, 2009. Retrieved September 18, 2009.
  16. ^ Nathan, Debbie (May 26, 2003). "Complex Persecution: A Long Island Family's Nightmare Struggle With Porn, Pedophilia, and Public Hysteria". The Village Voice. Archived from the original on July 24, 2008. Retrieved September 18, 2009.
  17. ^ District Attorney, County of Nassau, NY 2013, p. 30.
  18. ^ District Attorney, County of Nassau, NY 2013, p. 44.
  19. ^ District Attorney, County of Nassau, NY 2013.
  20. ^ "Friedman v. Rehal". US Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. August 17, 2010. Retrieved June 16, 2013 – via Findlaw.
  21. ^ Duke, Nathan (August 25, 2010). "Conviction of Friedman upheld". QNS. TimesLedger Newspapers. Retrieved June 16, 2013.
  22. ^ "Report: 'Jesse Friedman was not wrongfully convicted' (Press release)". Nassau County District Attorney's Office. June 24, 2013. Archived from the original on October 5, 2018. Retrieved November 30, 2016.
  23. ^ Gregorian, Dareh (June 25, 2013). "Jesse Friedman is 100% guilty of sexually abusing children, reinvestigation by Nassau County district attorney concludes". Daily News. New York, NY. Retrieved July 26, 2016.
  24. ^ Applebome, Peter (June 24, 2013). "Teenager's 1988 Sexual-Abuse Conviction Was Justified, Report Says". The New York Times. Retrieved June 24, 2013.
  25. ^ "Barry Scheck affidavit" (PDF). Retrieved January 22, 2022 – via
  26. ^ Wise, Dan J. (June 24, 2014). "Scheck takes a different tack in Friedman case". Wise Law NY ( Retrieved October 13, 2013.
  27. ^ "Statements of witnesses". Retrieved January 22, 2022 – via
  28. ^ Pinto, Nick (May 30, 2013). "Jesse Friedman: The interview". The Village Voice. Archived from the original on June 8, 2013. Retrieved June 13, 2013.
  29. ^ "Ross Goldstein statement". Retrieved January 22, 2022 – via
  30. ^ Pinto, Nick (May 19, 2013). "Jesse Friedman spent 13 years in prison as a notorious child rapist – he may soon get an apology". The Village Voice. Archived from the original on June 10, 2013. Retrieved June 16, 2013.
  31. ^ Wegman, Jesse (February 9, 2015). "After a guilty plea, a prison term, and a movie, a sex abuse case returns". The New York Times. Retrieved February 10, 2015.
  32. ^ "Court denies Jesse Friedman access to documents in sex abuse case". CBS New York. December 9, 2015. Retrieved July 7, 2016.
  33. ^ "Matter of Friedman v. Rice". 2017. 2017 NY Slip Op 08167. Retrieved January 22, 2022 – via
  34. ^ "Court of Appeals rejects Nassau County DA withholding documents". (Press release). November 11, 2017. Retrieved January 22, 2022.


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