Mark Kermode - Video nasty

Film - A documentary of a family so dysfunctional you wouldn't believe it if it weren't true

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At a key moment in Andrew Jarecki's accidental study of modern gothic madness, an interviewee pauses briefly before alighting upon the word "dysfunctional" to describe his imploding family. It's a moment of arid irony, heavy with ominous understatement. In light of what transpires, "dysfunctional" turns out to be a polite word for the Friedmans.

Within their disturbingly ordinary ranks, we find a child-molesting father and a (wrongly?) convicted sex-offender son whose brother turned on their mother for not standing by their kiddie-porn-peddling dad. From the moment the police broke down their front door on the eve of Thanksgiving, 1987, the Friedmans in effect ceased to be a "normal family". Yet the bizarre mundanity of their daily lives - at once familiar and utterly alien - continues throughout this portrait of everyday insanity.

While others would have put on hold their penchant for home movies, elder brother David Friedman's Big Brother-style video footage obsessively documents "the family falling apart", recording intimate rows and private revelations even as father Arnold and brother Jesse are carted off to prison. "This is private," David tells his camera in one wince-inducing moment. "If you're watching this and you're not me, then switch it off." Like averting our eyes from a car crash, we feel almost morally obliged to comply.

According to legend, Capturing the Friedmans began life as a quirky look at New York's "Number One Party Clown", an oddly miserable chap with one of those "crying on the inside" countenances so painfully pastiched by Bill Murray in Quick Change. Puzzled by David Friedman's barely guarded hostility towards his mother, and unaware of the family's twisted history, Jarecki interviewed the stoical matriarch Elaine, who made oblique and passing reference to "the case". One Google search later and Jarecki discovered that "the case" in question involved Dave's dad committing suicide in prison and his brother Jesse languishing in jail for their involvement in a credibility-stretching catalogue of sexual assaults that allegedly turned innocent computer classes into under-aged orgies of naked leap-frogging and wanton sodomy. No wonder the tears of David's clown seemed so troubled - the wacky jester's grin masking a horrendous family history that would put Poe to shame. If it weren't all "true", you wouldn't believe a word of it. As it is, one is left shocked, baffled, saddened and (most significantly) confused - uncertain whether any of this really happened at all.

The prime virtue of Jarecki's extra- ordinary, uncomfortable documentary (which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival last year) is its meticulously non-judgemental quality, which enables viewers to take from the film their own personal (and wildly individual) conclusions not only about the Friedmans, but also about the legal system that convicted them and the strangely fluid memories that now enshroud them. Jesse, for example, has been quoted as saying that he approves of Jarecki's film, which he believes absolves him of the mind- boggling charges of which he was convicted - charges to which he has in the past both admitted guilt and pleaded innocence, and which are here shown to have been at the very best unreliable. At one point, it is suggested that Jesse himself may have been a victim of Arnold's attacks - if indeed such attacks ever took place. Who knows? Not us, thanks to Jarecki's poker-faced direction, and certainly not the Friedmans, who can't seem to agree on anything other than that they were once a family.

Personally, I found the mephitic air of rotting domesticity a strange mixture of the absurd and the intolerable, concluding (as did the police) that the Friedmans en masse were completely nuts. Who the hell acts like this - on camera - when something so genuinely dreadful is engulfing them? Like the American woman who videoed her husband having a heart attack, or those sick souls who send tapes of pets and relatives enduring accidents to You've Been Framed!, the Friedman family's near pornographic obsession with home video suggests an onanistic existence in which the boundaries between performance and real life have simply ceased to exist. "Maybe I filmed it so I wouldn't have to remember it myself," says David, and maybe he's right. Certainly, without his digital memories, Jarecki's film would lack that essential, illicit ingredient of avowedly forbidden footage. In the end, we are simply thrown into a quagmire of conflicting realities and asked to make our own way towards the truth. It's a deliberately testing task, and one that raises serious questions about the immutability of the past and the persistence of memory.

Quite a feat for what started out as a documentary about clowns.