Part 2: Comparing to the Jinx, Jarecki’s Style

Now that I have discussed the background of both The Jinx and Capturing the Friedmans, I want to talk about Jarecki’s style. I also want to preface this by saying that even though I am calling his ethical integrity into question, Jarecki may be my favorite documentary filmmaker. He makes great documentaries that don’t force me to sleep, like many do. I know that a lot of the intrigue is rooted in his subject matter and the investigative nature of his films. But, now that I’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about his influences.


Jarecki is certainly not the first documentary filmmaker who uses his work as an outlet for truth-seeking and to, more specifically, challenge court rulings. He is clearly influence by Errol Morris’s film, The Thin Blue Line, (also previously discussed in a post) particularly in how he frames some of the evidence that is less than solid.

Let’s take for example how Jarecki introduces an interviewee who was in one of Arnold Friedman’s computer classes and testified to having been sexually abused by Arnold and Jesse. This scene particularly stood out to me because it was one of the first scenes that made me doubt their guilt. To mask this person’s identity, his face is in shadows, but the rest of his body is visible as he lays in a semi-provocative pose on a couch. It’s all very strange and hard to explain, but if you watch the documentary, you will know exactly what I mean.

Why would you stage a victim of sexual assault like this? You wouldn’t, unless you were trying the make them look foolish. And that is exactly what Jarecki did. He also undercuts him, by asking him two questions that resulted in conflicting responses. First, he asked if the boy (who is now a man at the making of the documentary) if he ever saw another boy abused in front of him. His answer was “no;” he said that all sexual activity took place in a private room. Jarecki then asks him what types of sexual acts he saw go on. He responds by listing group activities such as a totally horrific and twisted version of leapfrog in which the boys were raped one by one, all in plain sight of one another.  When Jarecki calls his attention to how that is contradictory to what he previously said, it clearly catches the interviewee off-guard. The effect of this is that the viewer seriously starts to question the validity of one of the key witnesses which impacts the overall picture.

This is Jarecki’s exact tactic in the Jinx. He essentially tricks Robert Durst into confessing, by presenting him with the letters, one written by the killer, and one written by him. When he cannot tell the difference between the two, he becomes anxious and appears to look severely guilty. Although in this case, he is calling attention to his subject’s guilt rather than trying to prove his innocence, he is still remaining true to his shady, though effective form of questioning. But this is his prerogative as a storyteller, to try to get to the truth and tell his story as he pleases. Or is it? Especially when someone’s reputation is on the line.


So let’s assume that Jarecki enters into both of these films with the mindset of turning the verdict of the cases over; he wants to prove Friedman innocent and Durst guilty (which I would guess he already thought Durst was, based on how he interpreted him in the movie All Good Things.) Does that mean he is going to ask only the questions that he knows will yield responses he is looking for? If he were to hold himself to the code of journalism ethics, however, he would need to be partial in his pursuit of the truth and be sure to trace all avenues and sides of the stories before framing someone as a criminal or a criminal as innocent.

I watched a YouTube video that looks at what Capturing the Friedmans left out and also read over a semi-recent article that examines how Jesse is pretty much 100% guilty of the crimes he was accused of. Both of these sources view Jarecki’s film as propaganda that misleads the audience. The video lists important pieces of information left out from the film that blatantly point to Jesse and Arnold’s guilt. Check it out, if you’ve watched the documentary already. Otherwise, it probably won’t make much sense:  

I’ll just summarize some of the important parts of both pieces…basically the video uncovers that Jarecki left out an entire interview from around the time when Jesse was sentenced in which he confessed, in detail, to having committed the acts of abuse. And here’s a quote that pretty much sums up the essence of the entire article from The New York Daily News:

“The Nassau County DA’s office blasted the 2003 film “Capturing the Friedmans” as misleading, and accused the moviemakers of interfering with the probe they were responsible for reopening. The report said the filmmakers misrepresented comments from an investigator and the judge presiding over the case, and took at face value comments by one victim that he was “hypnotized,” when there’s no evidence of such.

The report also claimed filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling would not hand over some of the evidence under their control, and refused to hand over the unedited versions of interviews with Jesse Friedman, his family members and another co-defendant in the case.

Jarecki told the Daily News his investigation was far more thorough than the DA’s “superficial” probe. He said they provided investigators with more than 1,700 pages of exonerating evidence, and “they never even asked us a single question about it.”

(Read the entire article at :

Withholding evidence was also the problem Jarecki ran into with The Jinx. The confession used at the end of the documentary should have been handed over to the authorities, rather than held for the sake of including it in the film for the effect.


So, with all of this being said, I can’t really answer my question of whether or not he should be more ethical in terms of how he is telling his story. However, I can say that when I watch his next film, I will be more wary in what I take from the story based on how he skews it. After all, even though he is telling someone else’s real life story, he has creative licensing to tell it how he wishes as the director. First and foremost he is a filmmaker; he just happens to also operate in the realm of journalistic issues.


Andrew Jarecki: Documentary Filmmaker or Investigative Journalist? (Part 1)

Part 1: Capturing the Friedmans (2003), the Background Story

So begins my final documentary post, which will consist of two parts and ties back to the subject of ethics. Why? Because my most recent documentary screening was of another ethically questionable (but totally fascinating) film from Andrew Jarecki (creator of the Jinx) called Capturing the Friedmans.


This film is an in-depth look at the seemingly normal upper-middle class, Jewish family whose entire world changed when their father, Arnold Friedman was found guilty of possession of child pornography. This launched a massive investigation in which Arnold and his oldest son Jesse were accused of horrific sexual acts against children to whom they were supposed to be teaching computer classes in the suburban New York town of Great Neck. Once news of the case surfaced, hysteria ensued and the reports of molestation came flooding in.


In order to better understand the timeline and the players involved in the story, you should first watch the trailer:

This trailer only slightly hints at just how eccentric and troubled the family dynamic of the Friedmans really is, but let me tell you, they are a lot to handle and truly the perfect subjects for a twisted, but captivating documentary.  The mother appears to be a cold, harsh woman who was hardened by her rude and crude-humored sons who all worshiped the ground that their father walked on.  If I had to describe how the film made me feel, even before grasping the full gravity of the acts (allegedly) committed by Arnold and Jesse, it would be uncomfortable. Watching them interact, seeing their home videos, hearing the men talk about their father…it all creeps me out. Something just feels wrong about them.


But let’s get back to the content… in this documentary, like The Jinx, Jarecki is trying to uncover the truth when the facts are shaky.  In the Friedmans’ case, there were a number of questions surrounding several of the testimonials from the children who were allegedly abused by Jesse and Arnold and the lack of actual physical evidence; therefore, there was still a question of whether or not the men were guilty, even after they were sentenced. The trailer illustrates the speculation involved in the complicated case that did eventually land Arnold in prison for life and his son for 13 years before his release.

Interestingly, I read that Jarecki decided to pursue this project after doing a short film called Just a Clown, which focused on the youngest son in the Friedman family, David Freidman who at the time was the most popular birthday clown in New York City. (Yeah this is a weird family). When Jarecki found out about David’s family background and how adamant he was that his brother and father were innocent, he couldn’t resist, but further investigate.


Before Jesse’s release, David started a “Free Jesse” campaign, complete with court documents and a timeline of events. It’s super extensive and shows just how devoted he was to clearing the family name. Here’s the link to the website:

Although it’s not entirely clear and almost impossible to know for sure, it seems like the initial intent of the film was to exonerate Jesse and have the court ruling overturned. David and most of his family turned over home movies and all sorts of personal information to include in the documentary, so it can only be inferred that they supported the film’s making and thought it would help Jesse’s case. Although, the end of the documentary just left me with more questions and didn’t particularly sway me in either direction based on the facts. I just felt, based on the vibe I got from the family, that it seems almost impossible that they could be innocent. They appear to be way too twisted and troubled to not have been involved in some sort of scandal. Nevertheless, I see how the hysteria may have taken over and caused facts to be extorted.


So, to wrap up this introduction to the documentary, all I can add is that despite how much it disturbed me (much like The Jinx), Jarecki once again found the perfect recipe for a documentary: a totally bizarre and clearly troubled family, a wild collection of home movies, a bunch of conflicting stories.  I’ll look more at his style and the ethics in the next post…to be continued.

The Thin Blue Line: A Lot of Promise, Little Punch

The Thin Blue Line tagline: “A soft-core movie, Dr. Death, a chocolate milkshake, a nosey blonde, and The Carol Burnett Show. Solving this mystery is going to be murder.” Sounds like the makings of a great documentary, right? Wrong. (At least in my opinion)

I’ll admit it; this documentary almost put me to sleep. I know that it is supposed to be a groundbreaking investigative documentary filled with intrigue and uncovering corruption, but I have to say, I didn’t want to keep watching.


Errol Morris’s documentary The Thin Blue Line tells the conflicting stories of Randall Dale Adams and David Ray Harris, two men suspected of the murder of a Texas police officer in 1976. After Adams’ car broke down one night, 16-year-old Harris picked him up and the two spent the weekend getting high and drinking. At the end of the weekend, in the same area, a police car was shot by a motorist who then fled the scene. The crime was traced back to Adams and Harris, but eventually blamed on Adams due to questionable testimony and corruption within the court system. The documentary itself reviews the case and the testimony given at the trial. It also takes into account the both Adams’ and Harris’s sides of the story, but is clearly trying to prove Adams’ innocence.


What ruined the documentary for me was the format. First, there are no lower thirds to help establish who is who, and their roles in the case. So I was lost pretty much from the beginning which was not helpful in keeping me interested. Second, the recycling of footage throughout the entire 103 minutes made for minimal visual interest. The same shots played out on the screen over and over again: the gun, the cop approaching the car, and the TV guide (repeat). This coupled with the often repetitive talking heads made the whole viewing experience lackluster to me.

So after watching, I wanted to know what exactly I had missed from this documentary that coined it a “must see.” After reading a NYT article on the documentary, I had a little bit more of an appreciation for it. Turns out that the documentary helped prove Adams’ innocence.

Here’s the link to the article:

the thin

This was also interesting to me considering that I just watched The Jinx. Oddly enough, both of these films seem to take investigative filmmaking to a new level by being pivotal in the actual case and serving as evidence.

However, while The Thin Blue Line aided in the release of an innocent man from incarceration, The Jinx helped bring together evidence to pin a guilty man of murder. Maybe that is the root of my lack of interest in The Thin Blue Line; it was just a letdown after The Jinx.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Robert Durst, in the bedroom, with a gun.

Robert Durst, in the kitchen, with a hacksaw.

Robert Durst, ???, ???  Body never found….

These are the murders of Robert Durst, billionaire heir to New York City real estate royalty and subject of HBO’s newest documentary mini-series The Jinx. A real-life murder mystery pieced together in front of your eyes……what else could a documentary viewer ask for?

Most of you have probably heard me rambling on about this documentary series and how addicted to it I have become, or if not, you may have seen stories about it on the news. It’s likely to become even more of a focus for the media as time goes on. The Jinx is extremely controversial because it stirs up questions about ethics, interrogation, and investigative reporting, all in the realm of documentary.

First for those of you who are not familiar with the story, here is a trailer to the series:

So if that doesn’t curb your interest, here’s some more background info:

all good things

It’s produced by the same man behind MTV’s Catfish, Andrew Jarecki. He also made a movie inspired by Durst’s life called All Good Things with Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst in 2010. After Durst saw the movie, he contacted Jarecki with the idea of starting this series in order to tell his own version of his story.

(*Spoiler, kind of, but not really, because you’ve probably heard about it in the news anyway) Durst confesses to all of the murders at the end of the series. After the interview is over, he goes into the bathroom (without realizing that his microphone is still on) and starts talking to himself. In his crazy mumblings he clearly says “Murdered them all. Of course I did.”

Durst was arrested (again) on the same day that the series premiered on HBO and is now facing trial.  Only time will tell how this documentary is used as evidence for his crimes.

Which brings me to my discussion of this fascinating series. . .

What I find most interesting is how The Jinx combines Durst’s history, his present, and the making of the documentary itself, with the perspective of Jarecki and his crew as they interact with Durst and start to form their own opinions about his guilt. According to Jarecki, he didn’t go into making the series with the intention of proving Durst’s guilt, but the more that he got to know him and sense his insanity, the more impossible it seemed that he was innocent.


Essentially, Durst dug his own grave when he asked Jarecki to produce this series. But the important question now is: can they even use the confession as evidence? I’m not going to pretend to know anything about the law, because I don’t, but it seems questionable to me because he was unaware that he was being recorded. On the other hand, he willingly signed onto this series to tell his story, so he wasn’t bugged.

BUT (shout out to all of my Editing for Publication friends), does this go against privacy regulations of journalism ethics??? I believe as DHL put it, we all have a reasonable expectation of privacy that cannot be exploited for the sake of journalism. (But wait, is documentary making journalism. Maybe? I think it depends. This type of investigative reporting seems to be.) I’d think that being in a private bathroom, by yourself is about as private as it gets. BUT the man is clearly crazy and a murderer, so what’s the court to do? I guess we shall see. What do you guys think?

Now I should also mention that I haven’t watch the whole series yet (thanks to HBO go’s deceiving set-up I watched the 6th episode first, then realized it was the last episode after I had already finished it, and had to go back to the beginning.) I’m sure that as I continue to watch, I’ll uncover more stuff to talk about, so more to come. But if you are looking for something new to watch, I highly recommend starting The Jinx. Just don’t start with the last episode.

Are Documentaries Truth?

So after thinking more about my last post and the propaganda concept of documentary, I decided to dedicate this entire post to examining truth in documentary and just how much liberty a filmmaker has in creating one.


You’ve probably seen this picture before…this is not a pipe. It’s a picture of a pipe. Or if you want to get really specific, it’s an image, made up of tiny pixels on a computer screen, all arranged to show a painting of a pipe.

The point is, I remember having an extensive discussion about this pipe in my film theory class last year. It relates to the idea of reality and depictions of reality. We think that we capture a moment in time with a camera and that it is reality, and yet it is only a miniscule piece of that reality. And we played a role in framing its reality because we chose when to take it, what angle to capture it at, and just how closely zoomed we wanted to be. Therefore, it’s reality as we want it to be seen and remembered from now on. The same can be said for documentaries; they frame reality.


While reading the Routledge Guide to Documentaries, this particular quote by filmmaker Errol Morris stood out to me.  Morris explained, “There’s no reason why documentaries can’t be personal as fiction filmmaking and bear the imprint of those who made them. Truth isn’t guaranteed by style or expression. It isn’t guaranteed by anything” (70).  This is exactly what I’m trying to say. Truth can never been ensured. We can take the facts as they are presented to us and then take what we want from them to create our own understanding of what we have watched.


So let us connected this idea to a documentary that has sparked a lot of debate in the past few years: Blackfish. You’ve all heard of it, the heart-breaking tale of orca whales kept in captivity and mistreated by SeaWorld. It stirred up a lot of trouble after its release on Netflix. People were outraged and ready to never return to SeaWorld ever again. The question is what was this documentary’s agenda? And just how truthful was it?

After watching it again, I tried to watch for the amount of speculation versus the solid evidence and facts that the documentary had to work with. A lot of it leans towards speculation, although seemingly believable speculation. I also did some research to look at the documentary’s reception from SeaWorld trainers. What I found was that many of them said that the filmmakers skewed their statements and cut out their explanations of the positive changes made to SeaWorld’s policies and procedures since the unfortunate incidents.


SeaWorld responded to the film with the statement, “Blackfish is inaccurate and misleading, and regrettably exploits a tragedy. The film paints a distorted picture that withholds key facts about SeaWorld among them that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research.”

So who is telling the truth? It may be impossible to know. And yet Blackfish gives us the food for thought and leads us to think about things we wouldn’t otherwise consider. Still, like all documentaries, we have to take them with a grain of salt. We must recognize the intention, consider the context and filmmaker bias, and then even do further research if the documentary opens our eyes to an area of interest.

In this shift towards a more blurred documentary style that appeals to our emotions and sets a clear agenda, several questions about the genre arise. Saunders sums them up perfectly when he writes, “Theatrical documentaries attach considerable importance to emotional effect. They acknowledge their subjectivity and the clash of perspective that constitutes the arena of public debate…To what extent is staging acceptable? Can interviews be fully scripted? Can past evens be recreated and different versions of an event by presented to convey different conceptions of what happened?…Every documentary seeks to win the viewer’s trust, which it then violates at its own peril” (81).

An interesting set of questions to consider as we continue our exploration of documentaries….

Documentaries in History: Part 1 (First Wave and Propaganda)

The next step in my exploration of documentaries is to establish some history.  As my guide, I used chapter two in The Routledge Film Documentary Guidebook by Dave Saunders, “Major Trends, Movements and Voices.” The chapter began by looking at the origins of documentary which are somewhat difficult to pinpoint.

Film history began with the capturing of scenes from everyday life. Images of moving trains, young children playing at the beach, and men and women performing ordinary tasks were some of the first filmic pieces released to the public. They were documentary-like because they did not rely on narrative or continuity principles like the later Hollywood films we became so accustomed to viewing.

lumiere bros

Saunders suggests that one of the first true documentaries ever made was Nanook of the North in 1922. Nanook, directed and filmed by Robert J. Flaherty with a run time of 1 hour and 19 minutes, depicts the lives of the indigenous Inuit people of Northern Quebec, Canada. The documentary shows how they survive in the harsh climate, including how they construct their igloos, hunt for food, and keep warm. Nanook also captures the breath-taking landscapes of the North.


According to Saunders, Nanook began the trend towards the documentaries we know and recognize today. He writes, “Nanook of the North, which absorbed with elegance the recently conventionalized methods of Hollywood screen grammar that the now-familiar synthesis of filmic storytelling (via narrative construction, titling, and musical accompaniment and continuity principles) and the representation of reality came into being” (35).

nanook 2

Really what Flaherty did was expose people to something completely novel to anything they had ever seen before. Most people, unless they had traveled to the Arctic, would not know what life was like there. We take for granted the fact that even if we haven’t been to places around the world, we can easily access pictures and film that capture what it would be like to be there. In the early days of film, a work like Flaherty’s would be fresh and exciting because it depicted a lifestyle most knew nothing about.  Saunders illustrates this point when he says, “In essence, Flaherty brilliantly combined the principles of drama with principles of salvage anthropology: the result is a series of ethnographically infused films that clearly evince characteristics still fundamental to virtually all narrative documentaries” (35).

nanook 3

The next wave of documentaries that I chose to focus on is the surge of Nazi and Communist propaganda films during the late 1930s and into the 1950s. The leaders of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia recognized the power in cinema and the ability it would give them to send encoded messages to the public. Saunders explains this period in film history when he writes, “Nazi Germany’s dubious filmed works carried the flame of fervency on into the 1940s, while the Soviets’ methods of persuasion have been absorbed by numerous artists, in all subsequent decade, concerned with putting aesthetic or juxtaposition flair to use by advocating political viewpoints, whether seeking progress, change, reform or stasis” (39).

nazi propoganda                       soviet union prop

Considering what I know and understand to be “documentary,” I find it difficult to really place propaganda film into this category, despite what Saunders says. While audiences watching the films during the time of their creation may have seen them as depictions of reality, they were constructed and fictionalized to give the notion of whatever the creators intended. Even those that were formatted in documentary style were sending heavily constructed messages.

But isn’t that the intention of most documentaries?  (Now I’m playing devil’s advocate…with myself.) To construct a message that creates social change and sparks conversation? Yeah, I suppose it is. So let me try this again…What I think separates propaganda from contemporary documentaries is how propaganda tells its audience how to think, whereas contemporary documentaries give us something to think about. What do you guys think?

Grey Gardens: A Voyeuristic Treat

Grey Gardens, where to begin? Initial thoughts: SO intriguing. My eyes were glued to the screen the entire time. It was like catching a glimpse of the true crazy cat-lady life, deprived of human contact and slowly spiraling down.

Big And Little Edie

For whoever isn’t familiar with the story, Grey Gardens is the estate in East Hampton that was home to two of Jackie O’s infamous family members, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie). Big and Little Edie were considered insane and essentially isolated from the rest of the family. They are extremely eccentric and never leave their dilapidated mansion. Their characters are so bizarre that it seems almost impossible that they were actual people, never mind so closely related to American royalty.


This documentary, made in 1975 and directed by the Mayles Brothers, is (in my opinion) excellently done. It is exactly what I want from a documentary—something seemingly transparent, yet entertaining and interesting.

What I particularly loved about the documentary (which would only work with subjects as riveting as Big and Little Edie) was how it just followed them around day to day in their own home. There was no need for talking heads, voice-over, or any other form of general documentary conventions. The film doesn’t establish a format; it all happens organically. Or at least it seems. I know better than to trust that anything filmed is actually portraying reality, and yet this seems so authentic.  It is pure voyeurism in the way that the camera just captures their actions, discussions, and setting. Occasionally, the cameraman engages in conversation with them or poses a question.


Most of the context about their pasts comes out through one-on-ones with Little Edie or when the two are looking through old pictures, reminiscing about the past. There is also one point in the beginning of the film that they show newspaper headlines describing how Grey Gardens was in danger of being taken over by the health department and the women kicked out of their home.

Here’s a clip to better illustrate their dynamic (because you have to see to understand). It’s 15 mins of some of the highlights, but the first few minutes will give you the general idea:

Final thoughts: Watch Grey Gardens! It’s pure documentary and pure entertainment.