The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Probably the most dysfunctional family I’ve seen on a screen

with 14 comments

I’ve always claimed that I come from a dysfunctional family.

When I was younger I used to imagine that this made me special. I thought I was surrounded by broken people with all sorts of issues and messed up relations that could have been brought straight from a Bergman movie. With the exception of my brother and sister no one could possibly understand what it was like to be a member of this particular family.

It took me many years to get real about it. While everyone is a unique and beautiful snowflake, I wasn’t unique in thinking having a dysfunctional family. Everyone has it!

Actually if someone came to me claiming that there family was absolutely perfect and well functioning in every aspect, I would look at them suspiciously since they probably were into deep shit, being so dysfunctional that they didn’t even have the self insight about it.

If you’re looking for people who go through life without ever getting a scar, you’ll have to search among the wax figures at Madam Tussauds (but not in the torture chamber).

However, regardless of what claims we all have about families that are out of order, I know one family that beats us all: the Friedmans.

Their story, or I should rather say: their stories, since there are as many different sides of this as there are family members, are told in the documentary Capturing the Friedmans.

Sexual abuse
I’ve never seen a family as dysfunctional as this one.

The Friedmans was a typical middle class American family, living in a nice neighborhood where the cutting and watering of the lawns in front of the houses was impeccable. One day in the 80s their life shattered as the father in the family was arrested and charged. At first he was accused for owning child pornography, but it didn’t take long before the accusations grew into something far worse. In the end not only the father, but also one of the sons, were sentenced to severe punishments for having abused children sexually in the most horrible way you possibly could imagine.

Did they really commit all those crimes or didn’t they? There are different views on this, even among the family members. Some families stick together in times of trial; this one doesn’t. It falls apart. While the sons believe in the innocence of their father, his wife doesn’t buy into it and refuses to back up her husband the way they’d like her to.

The filmmaker Andrew Jarecki doesn’t take sides. Everyone gets a chance to give their perspective, not only the family, but also police inspectors, the lawyer, the judge and witnesses. We hear those who say there was abuse and others who are certain that the family became victims of mass hysteria, where children made up things just to please the grown-ups. It’s up to the viewer to decide who is most trustworthy.

Authentic documentation
What makes the film stand out as something different to an ordinary piece of investigating journalism is the presence of a huge amount of authentic material.

The Friedmans had the habit to document their lives in video tapes and audio recordings. Those recordings continued even after the family had been thrown into chaos following the arrestments and Jarecki has gotten access and permission to use all this material.

Sometimes we hear about horrible things on the news and maybe we think to ourselves: “poor family, I wonder how they take it”. Usually we don’t know. But in the case of the Friedmans, it’s the opposite, thanks to all those recordings. Nothing was too private to be registered. We’re allowed into places where we usually don’t go. We become witnesses to all the pain, the fear, the aggression and we see how the family breaks down from an inside perspective.

Layer after layer is revealed in the movie and I was fascinated as I watched the story unfolding. I’ve never seen anything like it. The film is made in a clever way, where you think you know how things are, and then something happens so you question what you just thought, and in this manner you’re tossed back and forward in the way you view Friedmans. One moment they appear to be monsters, the next they’re innocent victims of a conspiracy.

Thought provoking
Guilty or not? I honestly still don’t know. The truth is out there.

But instead of the truth, the documentary gave me lots and lots to brood over, like how deceptive our memories are and how different perspectives people can have on the same events, both being convinced that they’re the one who is right.

I won’t deny that the topic is tough. I was gripped, appalled, upset, saddened and frustrated as I watched the movie and on one occasion it made me cry.

If you want something truly thought provoking and an insight into what it’s like to live in a family that really is dysfunctional, beyond the normal middle class self obsession, I can’t recommend it enough.

And don’t miss out the extra material, especially the interview with Jarecki. It’s excellent and added quite a bit to my own appreciation of the film.

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, US, 2003) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

June 5, 2012 at 1:27 am

14 Responses

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  1. Very interesting review. I’ll definitely be checking this out. I had no idea what this doc was about.


    June 5, 2012 at 1:51 am

    • I really recommend it. It’s almost ten years old and the events are further back in time, but it holds up very well. It’s such an intriguing story and very well told.


      June 5, 2012 at 7:33 am

  2. Your post comes at an incredibly odd time Jessica. Just last night I was speaking with my step father about my family, my mothers family, and my fathers family. I ran through the characters, most of which I found to be dysfunctional.

    I kept thinking to myself, “who am I to be so judgmental and complacent?”

    Ultimately I arrived at the conclusion, like you, that just about every family is a bit chaotic and dysfunctional.

    Then again, if we were all perfect … what fun would that be?

    Sam Fragoso

    June 5, 2012 at 6:34 am

    • What a coincidence! I think that there is a reason why so many films are about families that are dysfunctional in one way or antother. No matter how weird they are, there are always elements in them that we can recognize and identify with.


      June 5, 2012 at 7:36 am

  3. Excellent review. I’ve always avoided this because of the subject matter but your words have described it in a more interesting way.

    Mark Walker

    June 5, 2012 at 11:55 am

    • Thanks! I hope you’ll get around to watch it. While it’s a bit heavy I still thought it was more intriguing than truly depressing.


      June 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm

  4. Oh my God, this movie was such a hard watch. I thought it was really well made, and I like that it never tried to say whether these people were guilty or innocent. But I could never watch this again.

    Dave Enkosky

    June 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    • It’s really well made. Even if you can’t bear the thought of watching it again, I really recommend the long interview with the director. The about-story is a story in itself, even though I didn’t go into it here.


      June 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm

  5. I have seen it a year or two ago and I gave it a 10/10 rating, it’s a very good movie.

    “When I was younger I used to imagine that this made me special. I thought I was surrounded by broken people with all sorts of issues and messed up relations that could have been brought straight from a Bergman movie. With the exception of my brother and sister no one could possibly understand what it was like to be a member of this particular family.”

    Mmm, I still think that. Maybe when I get older…


    June 5, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    • It was only recently it dawned on me. You have plenty of time. I’m glad but not surprised that we agreed on this one as we do about so many other movies.


      June 5, 2012 at 10:05 pm

  6. Ooh this sounds a cool one. I am the first to admit that I am not the best at watching documentaries, but every time I do I really enjoy them… so maybe this is something I should grow.

    Have you seen Dear Zachery? That is the best / hardest watch doc I have ever seen!!

    • You really should do check out this one. It’s done more like a movie than like a piece of journalism so to say. It could almost have been a feature film with found footage sort of. Watch it.

      I haven’t heard of Dear Zachery. Will keep my eyes open for it.


      June 6, 2012 at 10:01 am

  7. Great review (as always). This is a very good documentary, especially because they documented so much themselves. I have no doubts that they were guilty, even if the documentary does show things that would make one have doubts. Another documentary which you really should see (and hit me much harder than this one did) is Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father.


    June 6, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    • Well again: I’m not dead certain in my verdict. There is no doubt I believe that some of the testimonies were the result of some kind of mass hysteria and the pressure parents and police put on those kids. On the other hand at least the father WAS into child pornography and seems to have acted on his impulses on previous occasions, so, no he wasn’t completely innocent and there may very well have been stuff going on in those classes, but probably not to the extent that they were judged for. But again: it’s hard to tell and the film gives support to both sides.

      You’re the second commenter to suggest that film. I haven’t watched it. Will look out for it.


      June 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm

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