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Director talks 'Capturing the Friedmans'

By Meriah Doty

Jarecki says of the Friedman case, "I think the police felt they were doing the right thing. In a lot of cases they clearly did not do the right thing."

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(CNN) -- Andrew Jarecki says it all happened accidentally.

The filmmaker -- who earned a fortune as a founder of Moviefone (now an AOL Time Warner company, as is CNN) -- is the director of the acclaimed documentary "Capturing the Friedmans." Originally, Jarecki says, the film was going to be about New York City clowns.

It turned into a probing documentary about the lives of a family who were embroiled in an infamous child abuse case in the 1980s.

In 1988 Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse, then 19, pleaded guilty to several counts of pedophilia. Arnold has since died in prison. Jesse has been released, but he is considered a level 3 sex offender under Megan's Law. Jesse is required to wear a plastic monitoring device at all times; he cannot leave the island of Manhattan, according to Jarecki, nor can he live in a building where there are children or go places where children can be found.

CNN's Meriah Doty interviewed Jarecki about the film, which won best documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has received critical acclaim from The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, LA Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and other publications.

CNN: How do you go from founding Moviefone to making an award-winning documentary?

ANDREW JARECKI: I think the only thing that ties those things together is how random both those occurrences were, which is the story of my life. ...

I started Moviefone by accident. It was the result of trying to go to the movies one night and I was calling my local theater and it was busy. By the time I got through it was 8:30 p.m. and the machine told me the movie started at 8:15 p.m. It sort of screwed up my night. Then I thought, maybe there ought to be a system to make sure people can find what information they need to go to the movies. But that always felt like an accident. I think I was well prepared for the accident because I recognized it as something I needed to pursue.

The Friedman family: Arnold, Elaine and their three boys Jesse, David and Seth appear in this family photo at David's bar mitzvah.

(Jarecki is no longer formally involved with Moviefone, having sold off a financial interest in the late '90s.)

That was the same thing [with my film]. I started making a film about professional children's birthday party clowns in New York City because I thought that would be a kind of quirky, interesting subject. Then I started working with David Friedman who is the No. 1 guy who does that [line of work]. ...

After I worked with him for about six months on the first movie, I discovered he had a secret story. It was equally as accidental in a way. The good thing was I was prepared for it and I was anticipating having the story change. At least I didn't fight it when it started to change.

CNN: The connection has historically been made between pedophiles gravitating toward working with kids. The movie didn't deal with the fact that David is a clown working with children. Do you have anything to say about that?

JARECKI: There is zero question about David's integrity. There's zero. I've known the guy for a number of years. Of course it's his greatest fear that people make that unfair connection. That's what prevented him from being a part of the film in the beginning. Ultimately he had to overcome that.

One of the things I'm trying to convey is that the movie isn't really about pedophilia; it's really about a family. We all have these things in our family. What if the father is a pedophile? What if he's an alcoholic? What if he's beating his kids? Or what if he's just a deadbeat? Or if he doesn't pay attention to his kids? There's always something in a family like this that is the catalyst of the destruction of a lot of things.

And of course, when people hear that word immediately they think, "I don't want to see that movie." The movie is about so much more than that. I hope they're seeing past that because I think it's easy to not.

Arnold, right, and Jesse Friedman in a photo originally from Newsday, May 28, 1989.

As an example, you hear this story and you understand that David is related to this family, and then all of a sudden that stigma becomes part of David's world. I think he was legitimately concerned about that. I think he, in the end, concluded that his brother [Jesse] needed this story to be told. His brother had suffered a lot. His brother has been through an incredible, disastrous life experience and remains fairly hopeful and optimistic, considering.

CNN: The film doesn't draw any conclusions about the guilt or innocence of Arnold and Jesse, it seems.

JARECKI: It doesn't feed them to you with a spoon. It is usually [shades of gray] in a legal case. We'd like to think when we read the paper and the guy pled guilty to 42 counts of something or other and we think he must have shoplifted 42 different items. But in the end you find out it's this incredibly complicated dance with the prosecutor about what you're willing to say you did. ... It's more about cutting a deal -- like everything else in America is now at the moment. ...

I wasn't there. I didn't want the film to say "Andrew Jarecki thinks the following." But at the same time there was no trial here [because Arnold and Jesse pleaded guilty]. There should have been a trial. There needs to be a trial in a case like this. There needs to be conflicting evidence presented. For example, the judge in this case says, in the film, "There was never a doubt in my mind as to their guilt." She's a sitting Supreme Court judge who has never seen a trial in this case and she says she already knows what happened. That's really scary.

For me I felt like all I really needed to do is to bring all the evidence to the audience for the film and let them have their own opinion.

CNN: Did you draw any conclusions about the case that didn't necessarily show up in the film?

JARECKI: It's hard to say exactly what you believe about the case. But I think the family was painted as this kind of monstrous group of people who were totally disconnected from reality and didn't know right from wrong. And I don't think that's true at all. ...

One thing that I definitely came away with was this feeling of people ascribing motives to other people. It happens on both sides. David Friedman says the police are "out of their minds." I don't know if the police were out of their minds. I think the police felt they were doing the right thing. In a lot of cases they clearly did not do the right thing.

Even to this day, when Fran Galosa, the detective, says she remembers seeing evidence in this house and that it was extremely clear. Then a moment later we see a photograph that proves she's completely mistaken. That teaches me something. That tells me that she's sure that she's right, that her brain is playing tricks on her and that her memory has evolved over time after telling this story many many times at cocktail parties. She's finally gotten it down to where she's turning these guys into totally inhuman monsters. But that's not a fair way to represent a human being.

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