Are documentaries favoring their subjects?

Jesse Friedman, center, and his father, Arnold, right,

Jesse Friedman, center, and his father, Arnold, right, under arrest from the documentary "Capturing the Friedmans." (May 1989) (Credit: AP)

The case of Jesse Friedman was long closed when a little-known filmmaker happened upon it.

Andrew Jarecki's documentary "Capturing the Friedmans," released in 2003, told the story of Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse, both convicted of sexually abusing children in their Great Neck home during the 1980s. Arnold had killed himself in prison in 1995, and Jesse was paroled in 2001. But Jarecki's film raised possibilities of coerced testimony, a biased judge and witnesses who later recanted. A 2010 ruling by an appellate court, citing the movie, urged a reinvestigation.

Last month's report on that investigation, by the Nassau County district attorney's office, upheld Jesse's conviction. But it also raises questions about the role of documentary filmmakers in matters of law. The report suggests "Capturing the Friedmans" presented evidence through a selective lens, taking quotes out of context and omitting damning evidence such as Jesse's confession to Geraldo Rivera on national television. It also accuses the filmmakers of hampering the investigation by encouraging witnesses to take back incriminating testimony.

The report's independent advisory panel, which included Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, said in a statement that the filmmakers' actions "presented difficulties" for investigators. "Artists and advocates use different methods, make different judgments and apply different standards than those that public prosecutors must employ," he said in the statement.

Is "Capturing the Friedmans" a film that inserted itself into the legal process and muddied the search for truth? Or should the movie be commended for encouraging a fresh look at a troubling case?

"The job of the film was not to substitute for a trial," says Jarecki. "It was to say, 'There are tremendous problems with this case.' And one of the things the film turned out to do is raise questions."


Getting results

"Capturing the Friedmans" isn't the first documentary to become part of its own narrative. Errol Morris' 1988 film "The Thin Blue Line" examined the case of Randall Dale Adams, convicted of killing a police officer, and led to his release. The "Paradise Lost" trilogy, by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, helped free three teenagers convicted of murdering and sexually mutilating children in West Memphis, Ark. "Granito: How to Nail a Dictator," a 2011 film by Pamela Yates, had a different effect: Some of it became evidence in a war-crimes trial against a former Guatemalan president.

But filmmakers differ in their approach. While most journalists adhere to accepted guidelines of objectivity, all documentarians do not abide by the same rule book.

Berlinger says he began work on "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" presuming that the accused were guilty. Interviewing them convinced him otherwise. The trial, which painted the teens as Satanists engaging in a depraved ritual, struck Berlinger as an "epic witch hunt," and he was convinced his film, released in 1996, would prompt a reinvestigation.

When it didn't, he and Sinofsky made another movie, and then another. "The second and third films became much more direct," Berlinger says. "We were making the films for advocacy purposes, not for filmmaking purposes."

Berlinger seems conflicted about having crossed that line. "My own criticism of my own work is that 'Paradise Lost' went from a very evenhanded approach to a more one-sided approach," he says. "I was becoming an advocate. And I do have some sensitivities about my own journey."

Michael Collins, a fledgling filmmaker who cites "Capturing the Friedmans" as an inspiration, says he undertook his first feature, "Give Up Tomorrow," explicitly intending to right a wrong. His film tackles the case against Paco Larrañaga, a young man sentenced to death for raping and murdering two sisters in the Philippines. Despite substantial evidence in his favor -- including dozens of witnesses who put him 400 miles away from where the girls vanished -- he remains in prison.

Collins says his investigation was thorough, but he acknowledges his emotional investment in the case. The film's producer is related through marriage to Larrañaga, and the filmmakers have established a website called FreePaco Now.com. "We understood how we had to treat our subjects, and how we had to represent everyone in the film," Collins says. "But we had a point of view, and we were never ashamed of that."


The death of objectivity

Some observers say documentary filmmakers needn't be held to the same standards of objectivity as journalists, and that audiences are savvy enough to make up their own minds. "The term documentary implies that you've documented something real, but these are distinctions journalists make among themselves that have really lost their meaning," says June Cross, a former staff producer at PBS' "Frontline" who now teaches documentary film at Columbia University. "Objectivity died with Edward R. Murrow," she says. "Nobody does that anymore. It's passe."

"Granito" director Yates says filmmakers, prosecutors and defense attorneys aren't really so different. "Lawyers have a lot in common with filmmakers," she says. "We're going to try to tell a really good story based on the best possible evidence that we have -- they to the jury, we to our audience."

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