Filmmaker, journalist, activist– these are a few of the many hats that Andrew Jarecki wears. The Academy Award-nominated filmmaker is currently in the final stages of editing a short sequel to Capturing the Friedmans, his path-breaking documentary on wrongful convictions. Capturing the Friedmans was a precursor to what is to come in the world of journalism. Jarecki understood the ways in which film can convey a great amount of information in a short period of time, as he relayed a difficult and layered story in only 107 minutes.
“Film is going to have a greater force [in journalism.] There are more documentaries out there now [than ever before.] There are more platforms for documentary-filmmakers to showcase their work,” says Jim Romenesko, a well-known observer of online journalism who is highly popular among professionals in the industry.
The medium of film matches the need today’s audiences feel for more information at a faster rate. It is easy-to-digest, and allows a variety of people from different backgrounds to grasp complex stories. Additionally, people are now more accustomed to receive more information rapidly than ever before, because of the Internet.
Romenesko relates this shift in news intake to the current trend of shortening attention spans. “You see that in the types of journalism that is being put out there. Take a look at Buzzfeed, it’s all about pictures and giving the reader a lot of information in short spurts,” he says.
Jarecki understood the power of photos and videos as a journalistic medium ten years before blogs inundated the web. Capturing the Friedmans crystallizes the power of home videos and personal photographs, now known as “selfies” that are posted on Facebook. Beyond using digital material innovatively to draw the viewer inside the Friedmans’ lives, Jarecki and his teams taped personal interviews with members of the family. The contrast of the peacefully domestic images of the past with the chaotic and bitter snapshots of the present sharply paints each character and the intricacies of the plot. These images, coupled with Elaine Friedman’s description of her marriage decades later as a “big mistake,” help the viewer better understand her character and that of the labyrinthine of a Friedman mind.
Arnold and Elaine when they started dating.
“I went to Elaine Friedman’s house with David Friedman’s permission,” says Jarecki. The night before meeting with her, the filmmaker called Mrs. Friedman to make sure she was ok with him coming to film her in her home. She told Jarecki, “To tell you the truth, I am not comfortable. I have had some bad experiences in the past.’” Mrs. Friedman explained to Jarecki that she was once filmed for The Geraldo Show. The show staff had told her that they were going in one direction, but of course, it turned out otherwise. The Friedmans were lead to believe that The Geraldo Show would help Jesse overcome his conviction, instead, as Jesse puts it: “The show was a nightmare and in retrospect one of the biggest mistakes I ever made.”
At that point, Jarecki did not know much about Friedman case. “I thought that if that woman went on the Geraldo Show, whatever this secret story is, it’s going to be pretty interesting,” says Jarecki.The day after the titillating phone call with Mrs. Friedman, Jarecki and his crew set up for their interview with her in the from room of her house. Two hours later, she came in and said, “Well, this looks OK but there might be a better room.” Without any hesitation, Jarecki took everything down and followed Mrs. Friedman further into the house. This time, they landed in the dining room. Jarecki’s crew repeated their dance of setting up lights, cameras and mics. Two hours later, once everything was set up, Mrs. Friedman interjected: “This looks OK, but there might be a better room…” She took Jarecki and his team back into a room that appeared to be her private office. “She sat me down at the table [where] there was a letter. I thought it was addressed to me because she put me right in front of it,” recalls Jarecki. The letter read, “I was brought up in the Jewish faith to believe that truth and justice were the most important things. Truth and justice were never a part of this case.’
At that moment, Andrew realized that the original film he and his team set out to make was not the Academy-Award Nominated Documentary that he ended up making. “The other film was going to be kind of a dark film anyway. [It was going to be] based on the lives of these professional children’s birthday party entertainers in New York. It was a quirky group who knew each other and called each other by their clown names. David Friedman, Silly Billy, he was the number one clown in New York. [He had a] dark personality. He was sort of too sarcastic in a way to be a children’s clown,” says Jarecki.
Before meeting with Elaine Friedman, Jarecki appealed to his sensitivity and “common sense to call this woman the night before, because [he] knew she would be nervous.” he explains. “The next day, I had to have the patience to be able to say, ‘She wants to move us form the front room to the back room? OK, She must have her reasons.’” Jarecki had a hunch that she was testing if she could trust him. “I ended up going deeper with her into her life, into her house, into her story.”
All the skills required to create something as strong as Capturing the Friedmans are closely intertwined. “I wouldn’t say ‘OK, now I’m taking off my journalist hat.’ At the end of the day, the reason why Elaine Friedman talked to me is because I was nice to her. I seemed smart. [She knew] I was not going to trivialize whatever she was going to tell me. I was going to have compassion for her. That’s just a human quality,” he says.
Andrew Jarecki has shifted the medium of journalism from the traditional to the innovative. His work inspired journalists to divorce themselves from paper. The canvases are shifting to that which appeals to more viewers. There are more blogs, short video clips and audio pod-casts used in journalism than ever before; information is being condensed into smaller and smaller packages. As Romenesko reports, “I use social media heavily, [I produce] more reporting and unique material [in order to make my] website more appealing and have exclusive value.”
A few professionals, however, refuse to change their old ways. “Teaching has remained the same,” explains Dorothy Barclays, Journalism Professor at Columbia University. “The basics–good reporting and excelling writing–[is a recipe that will never change],” she says. Jack Shafer, Reuters Media Columnist, shares similar views. “I made no adjustments. I don’t care about my audience. It’s cold, it might sound nineteenth century-like but I write about what I write about. And if my audience wasn’t happy with it, I wouldn’t have a job,” he says, blunt and refreshingly honest.
A lot of online journalism is “not truthful” and “not reported well,” says Professor Barclays. “We have information that will be lasting for centuries based on lies and no facts at all. That’s one thing to be alarmed about.”
Shafer told freelance writer Robert Kiener that “it’s the method the journalist uses to arrive at his conclusion that has to be objective.” Unethical methods are often born of skewed motivations; if a journalist were to have personal biases coming into a story, their methods would be warped. Andrew Jarecki was successful in reporting on the Friedmans because he was drawn to the case by its essence. “I am there because the system mistreated Jesse and the outcome for him was horrific,” says the filmmaker. Seeing Friedman go to jail for thirteen years and come out as a level three violent sexual predator for a crime he did not commit troubled Jarecki. “[Jesse] is not even remotely violent or a difficult person. My interest in [the case] really comes from the facts. I never had an objectivity problem,” he says.
Jarecki’s drive to tell Jesse Friedman’s story arose from the evidence, or lack thereof. When interviewing potential witnesses, he never tainted his language with suggestive phrasing that would lead his subject in a particular direction.
When talking about “subjectivity,” critics often solely focus on the author’s inclinations, building complex opinions on word choice or phrasing. When asked about “subjectivity,” Andrew Jarecki flips the lens around; instead of spotlighting the journalist, he gave insightful comments on the role of viewer.
“Subjectivity is in the eye of the beholder. Some people say: ‘Isn’t Fox great because it’s so fair and balanced?’ I don’t think that people who watch Fox think ‘Wow, these guys are partisan jerks.’ What is balanced and what is fair is largely in the eye of the beholder,” he says.
During a screening of Capturing the Friedmans at the IFC Center in New York City, Jesse Friedman and Andrew Jarecki answered questions from audience members. Jesse Friedman expressed that it is clear to him that the movie shows the flaws of the police investigation, thus proving his innocence. One viewer, however, explained that amongst her friends, a few found the documentary to be ambiguous. “I came away from this film ten years ago, and dine down on it with friends for another year, it would come up in all conversations, and I was always stunned that not all people came out thinking [that Jesse Friedman was innocent]. There was a real dichotomy with people thinking all the way to the left or the right,” she says.
The follow up project will have no ambiguity. “The work that is being done [in the follow up] is because a group of people believe that Jesse is innocent and that the police were awful in the behavior they brought to the case,” says Jarecki. The original movie was not designed to free Jesse Friedman from the bonds of a wrongful conviction. Yet, it has in a large way had that impact because many saw the movie and deemed it unacceptable even though it was not the movie’s primary purpose. “The years since, our primary purpose has been to get Jesse exonerated,” explains Jarecki.
Journalists and their work can play an important role in court. A documentary film is not a substitute for a traditional testimony or cross-examination interrogation, but it does not mean that film is not evidence. “A video taped statement is remarkably good evidence,” says Ron Kuby, Jesse Friedman’s acclaimed defense lawyer. “Yes, it is hearsay, but [the court] sometimes admits it [as evidence,]” he says.
The hearsay rule prohibits the use of out of court statement. However, there are exceptions to the rule. “The aim of the hearsay rule is to keep out unreliable evidence,” says James McGuire, Former Associate Justice of the New Your State Supreme Court. “[Filmed evidence can be offered] for the truth of its content.” Imagine that a filmmaker has, on tape, a statement from a police officer stating that during a high-profile murder investigation, he did not carefully label each piece of evidence. If, in front of the court, that same police officer claims otherwise, the defense team could use the filmed evidence to impeach the police officer’s statement and ask him to explain why he lied on tape. “The prosecution loves video-taped evidence,” notes Kuby, “until it’s used against them. Then, they degrade the fact it’s a movie.”
Andrew Jarecki is a visionary. After innovating the world of journalism in the early 2000s, Jarecki is now shaping the ways in which documentary films play a role in court. “None of us would be ready to go back into court if it wasn’t for Jarecki,” says Kuby. The prosecution is outraged that Andrew Jarecki successfully put light on what they attempted to suppress for years. In addition, Jarecki has a great stage to showcase his work, thanks to his academy award nomination, which he is smart enough to use effectively. The prosecution “hates Andrew because he did so much right,” says Kuby. Documenting one’s life through images and exposing it for the world to see was once deemed as absurd but is now an accepted part of our culture. The concept of accepting documentary films as evidence might seem threatening now, but it will certainly make its way into our legal system, starting with the Jesse Friedman case.