Given the explosive nature of Andrew Jarecki's first documentary, it's surprising to learn that "Capturing the Friedmans" is not the film he intended to make. Indeed, filmmaking isn't necessarily the career he intended to pursue.
Mr. Jarecki has two prior claims to fame. Tired of getting a busy signal when he called a movie theater for showtimes, he founded Moviefone, a movie information and ticket line, in 1989. The occasional songwriter also co-wrote the theme song for the WB's "Felicity."
"I try to follow my intuition in life; I try not to follow a plan," said Jarecki in a recent interview. "The stuff you don't control is so much more powerful than the stuff you do control."
Such is the case with his first feature film. It's the story of a comfortable, middle-class family in an upscale Long Island community that is rocked when the father and one son are charged with multiple sex crimes.
"When I sold [Moviefone in 1999], I said, 'I feel like making a movie,' " says Jarecki. The film he wanted to make was originally about children's birthday party entertainers in New York City.
"This could be a light, nice subject for a film," he remembers thinking.
Among the 150 people he interviewed for the proposed film was David Friedman, a leading party clown in New York. After his interviews with Friedman, Jarecki soon realized he was going to be making a different movie.
"I discovered he had this secret story," he explains. "When I asked him about his father or brothers or mother, I got these prepackaged responses."
Jarecki kept pressing, and soon he was telling his assistant to put all the circus-clown material in a box marked "Movie A" and start focusing on the Friedmans. "Now we're going to start working on Movie B."
Movie B is about how David's father, Arnold Friedman, a retired and award-winning teacher, was accused of molesting boys in a private computer class held in his home. The youngest of his sons, Jesse, was also charged with participating.
Although the story made headlines in 1987 when they were arrested, audiences should try to go into the story not knowing the outcome because the film is a fascinating study of how difficult it is to search for the truth.
Jarecki presents viewers with the full story, aided by several family members, including Jesse, and several of the students who claimed to have been molested, as well as lawyers on both sides.
"There are certain things that are really clear. The story did not happen as described by the police," Jarecki says.
Viewers are likely to find themselves changing their minds throughout the course of the film - and leave the theater still not entirely sure what to think.
"The experience of watching the film mirrors the experience of making the film," says Jarecki.
He would conduct an interview and be told he had to speak to someone else, and he would find that subsequent information "would dramatically alter my idea of what happened."
What makes this more than another story of a molestation case going out of control is that David Friedman, fearing the family was being torn apart, began videotaping family conversations and gatherings at the time. Thus we see them under fire without any thought that they were "performing" for the public. These were private "home movies," and it is sometimes painful viewing, as when David films himself mouthing off to the cops in a personal video diary.
"Capturing the Friedmans" is not a muckraking film, and treats all the parties with equal dignity. This is reminiscent less of "Jerry Springer" than of "Rashomon," Akira Kurosawa's film where the same story is altered as it is recounted from different perspectives.
Who does Jarecki end up believing? He'd rather leave it up to the viewer, but he points out that he did test all his interviewees by asking them questions that he already knew the answer to, to see if they'd trip themselves up.
One of the few people in the film who Jarecki says never veered from the truth was Jesse, the accused son. He told the director early on that he wanted Jarecki to know all the facts. Jarecki says he never caught him in a lie.
After shepherding the film to completion, Jarecki is now hoping to work on a fictional drama about an Italian family, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's where he'll end up. As before, he says, "I'm going to keep my mind open and see what moves me."