The question of can we trust the point of view of filmmakers and documentarians once more raises its head as the mess of Jesse Friedman makes headlines again. Friedman was the subject of the Oscar nominated Capturing the Friedmans which covered his case of child molestation. In the film questions were raised about the "conviction" (actually he pleaded guilty) and pondered if he actually did it. The questions were nagging enough that it had a judge ask the local DA re-examine the case to see if Jesse had in fact pleaded guilty to charges that were baseless. A re-examination resulted in a report that stated there was more than enough evidence of guilt and that the efforts of Friedman to clear his name were not supported by the facts.
Now before I go any further I want to say up front, I’m not going to argue for or against whether Jesse actually did anything other than to say that the report that affirmed the conviction says that there is more than enough evidence to keep things as they stand, and having read the report (yes I read the whole depressing thing) I think it says all that needs to be said (and no my knowing the report authors had nothing to do with it-I mean you read the report, especially the depo his attorney had him make explaining why he wanted to do it and the Geraldo appearance and tell me what you think). I say this because after the report was released I got into several arguments with people who knew only the film and who had heard Jesse speak who said it was flawed despite never actually reading it. I would think that if you want to argue the facts you'd at least know the facts, but that's not always the case.
Which is a perfect way to really begin in light of what happened with the Friedman case I have to ask-Can we ever trust what documentarians tell us?
I know we assume that if filmmakers are above board we are seeing is the truth or as close to the truth as humanly possible in 90 minutes or an hour or however long the film/show runs. But as anyone who has ever made a documentary will tell you things have to be cut and changed and the best that you can hope for is some semblance of the truth. Without going into a larger discussion of what is true lets just keep it a discussion of what really happened. Can we ever be certain that what we are seeing is really what happened?
I would like to think we can but that’s not always the case. Sometimes people cook the books.
In the case of the Friedmans, I had been told by friends of the director was that the film was shaped so that the things were not so clear cut against Jesse. What I had been told was that the film was cut to highlight any questions as to guilt because not to do so would end up with the Friedman family walking away from the film taking with them all of the home movies that form the backbone of the film. Also if they cut the film any other way it would make it less compelling and it would be a film they couldn't sell. In order to make a salable film they raised questions instead of looking for answers. (You have to remember the idea for the film came from Jesse's brother who wanted to clear his name so he was willing to give the filmmakers anything to help the cause.)
When the film was released and sent out into the world it was, for the vast majority of people, the only things they knew about the case. This means that except for those who were involved in the case, the film has the sole source of all the information that they had. It was the bible, it was the encyclopedia, it was the all the news that was fit to print. Any and all discussion that followed about what happened in the Friedman house was based entirely on what was in the film.
The trouble is, as anyone who has read the DA report knows, is it leaves a huge amount of material out ...
My realization as to how much was left out came when I spoke with the prosecutor of the case. He told me that the trouble with the film was that the filmmakers were only covering a small portion of the case because no one had actually seen the case files since Jesse pleaded guilty. The plea meant that a huge amount of information was never made public. He said he knew that the film was slanted as it was because the filmmakers only knew one side of the story (Jesse's) and a small portion of the facts that had made their way into the papers.
Since the filmmakers only knew just a little bit, everyone who saw the film only got some of the little bit the filmmakers knew.
And that’s the problem with everything we know about all documentaries- we only know what the documentarians digest for us. We only get what they decide to show us.
I know that most people who watch TV documentaries on History or Discovery or PBS or wherever assume that what they are seeing isn't everything there is to know about a subject. Most people I know will do a little extra digging if they find their curiosity piqued because the standard hour running time isn't enough.
On the other hand most people I know don't do that with feature films, especially with the work of someone of the stature Errol Morris, they assume that he's pretty much telling you all there is to know. I don't know many people who dug deeper after seeing The Thin Blue Line or Fog of War. There simply is an assumption that he is telling you everything.
Do you look further into the subjects of the documentaries you see?
I do occasionally but not always. Its more do I care enough to open up the lap top than anything else.
With Capturing the Friedmans, I did do a little research, but not much. As I said above most of it involved talking to the people connected with the case or knew the director. Though to be honest, if memory serves, most of what I was encountering on the Internet was did he or didn't he discussions and not much in the way of additional information on the case.
In retrospect I should have done more since I don't remember running across the part of the story where Jesse Friedman went on Geraldo and confessed, in detail, about what he did with the kids. I don't think I ran into the Geraldo show until I read the DA's report which refers to it and includes a transcription of it in the Appendix. It's a key bit and was the point at which I lost any and all doubt about what happened in Great Neck and it was the point where I was forced to reconsider how I look at documentaries.
In putting this piece together I went back and took out my DVD of the Capturing the Friedmans and scanned through it again looking for Geraldo and to make sure the the DA transcription of the film (the whole film is also transcribed in the reports Appendix) was correct. I figured that there had to be some mention of this damning piece of evidence that I had forgotten, but I hadn't forgotten anything, director Andrew Jarecki never mentions it in his film.
In recent weeks there has been a great deal of discussion about the Friedman case around where I live. Everyone has an opinion, until someone mentions the Geraldo interview. The interview is the point where most people who have been siding with Jesse walk away and change sides. They can't fathom why would he have gone on the Geraldo show and go into detail about what he did if he didn't do it? Its a good question. I mean you have a guy claiming to be innocent going into detail about what he did, why would he do that? (For the record Jesse now says that he went on the Geraldo show against his attorney's advice because he thought it would get him sympathy in prison.)
My question remains why doesn't Jarecki mention it?
Remember back near the top where I mentioned that people who knew Jarecki had said he slanted things to make his film salable? I'm guessing that forgetting to mention Geraldo was part of that. Even allowing that he may not have been able to use the footage, one would think he would have at least mentioned it, though I do realize that mentioning the part where your wrongly accused man goes into details concerning what he is now claiming not to have done makes your documentary unsalable.
And since Jarecki didn't mention it everyone who saw the film, never knew, unless they did more research, that the incriminating footage existed. I know that in recent years footage surfaced of the interview on line, but back when the film came out, back when the film was winning awards and moving things toward maybe possibly clearing Jesse's name what appears to be a key piece of evidence that essentially proved, or at least suggested, he did it was kept in the dark.
In my eyes there is no way getting around it, Andrew Jarecki lied to his audience. In the interest of fair reporting I have to say that I haven't been able to track down the directors explanation as to why he ignored the interview, but if he didn't know about it he should have simply because he said he did massive amounts of research on the case.
And where does this leave us? It leaves us with an award winning documentary that isn't as truthful as it should be. It also leaves us with a clear warning that we must always look beyond what the directors give us and always do a little extra research to make sure that like the makers of Capturing the Friedmans,no one is cooking the books.
For those wishing to read the Nassau DA report on the evidence it can be found here in several parts. The report runs almost 1000 pages including the appendix. The transcript of the Geraldo show starts on page 10 of the third appendix.
For those still pondering why Jesse went on Geraldo in the report's Appendix there is a transcription of a conversation Jesse had with his attorney where he says he wants to plead guilty because he did it. The transcript is in the second Appendix.