Some of the Friedmans' victims and family members wrote to the Awards Committee protesting the nomination, their identities confirmed but protected by the judge who presided over the court case.
Jarecki initially was making a short film, Just a Clown, which he completed, about children's birthday party entertainers in New York, including the popular clown David Friedman ("Silly Billy"). During his research, Jarecki learned that David Friedman's brother, Jesse, and his father, Arnold, had pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse, and the family had an archive of home movies. Jarecki interviewed some of the children involved and ended up making a film focusing on the Friedmans.
The investigation into Arnold Friedman's life started after the U.S. Postal Service in 1987 intercepted a magazine of child pornography received from the Netherlands. In searching his Great Neck, New York, home, investigators found a collection of child pornography. After learning that Friedman taught children computer classes from his home, local police began to suspect him of abusing his students.
During police interviews, some of the children Friedman taught reported experiencing bizarre sex games during their computer classes. Jarecki interviewed some of these children himself; some stated that they had been in the room with other children alleging abuse and that nothing had happened. The film portrayed police investigative procedures as the genesis of a "witch-hunt" in the Friedmans' community. The charges assumed that the abuse had taken place with multiple children over an extended period of time, yet none of them ever told any of it to anyone, nor were they in distress when parents arrived to pick them up from the computer classes.
The Friedmans were allowed to stay at home in order to prepare for court and took numerous home videos while Arnold Friedman (and, later, his son Jesse) awaited trial. The videos were not made with publishing in mind, but rather as a way to record what was happening in their lives. The movie shows much of this footage: family dinners, conversations, and arguments. Arnold's wife, Elaine, quickly decided that her husband was indeed guilty and advised him to confess and protect their son; she soon divorced him.
Arnold Friedman pleaded guilty to multiple charges of sodomy and sexual abuse. According to the Friedman family, he confessed in the hopes that his son would be spared prison time. Jesse Friedman later confessed as well but later claimed he did so to avoid being sent to prison for life. He said in mitigation that his father had molested him. According to Jesse's lawyer Peter Panaro, who visited Arnold in a Wisconsin federal prison, Arnold admitted to molesting two boys, but not those who attended his computer classes. He is also quoted as claiming that, when he was 13, he sexually abused his younger brother, Howard, who was eight years old at the time; Howard Friedman, interviewed in the movie, says he does not recall this. Jesse Friedman, in a subsequent statement, said that his father told him and his brothers of his abusing his younger brother.
Arnold Friedman committed suicide in prison in 1995, leaving a $250,000 life insurance benefit to Jesse. Jesse Friedman was released from New York's Clinton Correctional Facility in 2001 after serving 13 years of his sentence. Currently, he is running an online book-selling business.
The film received extremely positive reviews, with the review-tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 139 out of the 143 reviews they tallied were positive for a score of 97 percent and a certification of "fresh". The film was ranked as the 7th best-reviewed movie of 2003 on the website's best of the year list. The low-budget documentary was a success with audiences as well, grossing over $3 million in theaters and making it a surprise hit. Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Jarecki so recognizes the archetypal figures in the Friedman home that he knows to push things any further through heavy-handed assessment would be redundant." He praised Jarecki for operating under the premise "that first impressions can't be trusted and that truth rests with each person telling the story."
Washington Post columnist Desson Howe offered similar praise, writing, "It's testament to Jarecki's superbly wrought film that everyone seems to be, simultaneously, morally suspect and strikingly innocent as they relate their stories and assertions...This is a film about the quagmire of mystery in every human soul." Similarly, Roger Ebert wrote, "The film is as an instructive lesson about the elusiveness of facts, especially in a legal context. Sometimes guilt and innocence are discovered in court, but sometimes, we gather, only truths about the law are demonstrated."
The film won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for 2003. Capturing the Friedmans was voted the fifth most popular film in the 2005 Channel 4 programme, The 50 Greatest Documentaries.
In one of the few negative reviews, Los Angeles Times writer Kenneth Turan wrote a critique of both the film and Jarecki, stating, "Jarecki's pose of impartiality gets especially troublesome for audiences when it enables him to evade responsibility for dealing with the complexities of his material."
Criticism intensified as Jarecki's role in deliberately choosing not to pursue his firm belief in the Friedmans' innocence became publicly known. In his review, Ebert had recounted Jarecki's statement at the Sundance Film Festival that he did not know whether Arnold and Jesse Friedman were guilty of child molestation. Ebert roundly praised Jarecki for communicating this ambiguity. It has since emerged that Jarecki funded Jesse Friedman's appeal. Writing for The Village Voice, Debbie Nathan – who was hired by Jarecki as a consultant after having been interviewed for the film – wrote of Jarecki, "Polling viewers at Sundance in January, he was struck by how they were split over Arnold and Jesse's guilt. Since then, he's crafted a marketing strategy based on ambiguity, and during Q&As and interviews, he has studiously avoided taking a stand."
The 2003 DVD release included a second DVD: "Capturing the Friedmans - Outside the Frame". It included:Unseen home movies ("Passover Seder", "Grandma Speaks", "Jesse's Last Night")
Great Neck Outraged.
New Witnesses and Evidence.
Uncut footage of the prosecution's star witness.
Friedman family scrapbook and hidden audio tapes.
Just a Clown (the movie with David Friedman that led to Capturing the Friedmans).
Jesse's Life Today.
An altercation at the film's New York premiere.
The Judge (Abbey Boklan) speaks out at the Great Neck premiere.
A ROM section with key documents from the family and the case.
The materials show an altercation from a discussion period following the film's premiere in which the retired head of the Nassau County Police's Sex Crimes Unit, Frances Galasso, argues with Debbie Nathan, as well as a speech by trial judge Abbey Boklan from the showing in Great Neck. Both made the claim that the film had ignored relevant evidence of Jesse's guilt. This evidence included his appearance on the Geraldo Rivera show, when Jesse confessed to sexually abusing children, and the fact that there was another defendant (Ross Goldstein), who turned state's evidence and pleaded guilty (he is not named, much less interviewed, in the film), and two other unindicted boy co-conspirators. Jesse's lawyer at the time, Peter Panaro, said that he had advised Jesse not to appear on Rivera's talk show (Panaro was also present on the show), and in fact had Jesse sign an affidavit saying that he was doing so against legal advice.
In August 2010, a federal appeals court upheld the conviction of Jesse Friedman on technical legal grounds, but took the unusual step of urging prosecutors to reopen Friedman’s case, saying that there was a "reasonable likelihood that Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted". The decision cited "overzealousness" by law enforcement officials swept up in the hysteria over child molestation in the 1980s.
Following the appeals court ruling, the Nassau District Attorney's office began a three-year investigation led by District Attorney Kathleen M. Rice. On June 24, 2013, the report was released. In a 155-page report, the district attorney's office concluded that none of four issues raised in a strongly-worded 2010 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit were substantiated by the evidence. Instead, it concluded, "By any impartial analysis, the reinvestigation process prompted by Jesse Friedman, his advocates and the Second Circuit, has only increased confidence in the integrity of Jesse Friedman's guilty plea and adjudication as a sex offender." Jesse Friedman was regarded as a "narcissist" and a "psychopathic deviant" by a psychiatrist his attorney hired to conduct an evaluation. Boklan had been subject to "selectively edited and misleading film portrayals in Capturing the Friedmans". A four-member independent advisory panel guided and oversaw the work. It included Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, one of the country's leading advocates for overturning wrongful convictions, and a member of O.J. Simpson's defense team. However, Scheck has subsequently complained that key documents were not available to the panel, and urged the matter be reopened.
Prior to the report's release, details emerged, including letters from some of the alleged victims in which they recant their accusations and implicate the police in coercing their statements. Prior to the report's release, The Village Voice conducted an interview with Jesse Friedman, who described himself as "freakishly optimistic", and also reported that Ross Goldstein, a childhood friend of Jesse Friedman's, had broken his 25-year silence to explain he had been coerced into cooperating with the district attorney's office: "He told the review panel of how he'd been coerced into lying, how prosecutors coached him through details of the Friedmans' computer lab, which he'd never even seen, and how he was imprisoned for something he'd never done."
On February 10, 2015, Jesse Friedman was back in state appellate court seeking to have Nassau County prosecutors turn over to him the remainder of their evidence against him. A state Appeals Court found, in December 2015, that the prosecutors did not have to release the records. According to a spokesperson for the Nassau County District Attorney, because Friedman pleaded guilty and there was no trial, the records of witnesses who did not testify are confidential, and the law does not mandate their disclosure.