Andrew Jarecki opened this year’s TIFF Doc Conference by unveiling a trailer for The Unusual, a new feature documentary he is making, looking at the murder trial of Robert Durst.
In an hour-long chat this morning (September 10) with Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) doc programmer Thom Powers, the filmmaker discussed the origins of the new project, as well as his involvement with the characters from his landmark, Oscar-nominated documentary Capturing The Friedmans (pictured above), in the years since that film’s release in 2003.
In The Unusual, Jarecki will recount the tale of Durst, a 70-year-old millionaire real estate heir who was arrested and later acquitted for murdering and dismembering his neighbor, years after his wife Kathleen’s mysterious disappearance in 1982.
The case formed the basis for Jarecki’s 2010 scripted feature All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Dunst. Although Durst declined to participate in the making of that film, he later surprised the director by phoning him out of the blue and volunteering to submit to an interview, according to Jarecki.
The trailer cuts between the murder trial and subsequent media circus – recounted through news footage, interviews, and reenactments – and the making of All Good Things and Jarecki’s first meeting and interview with Durst.
In a similar vein to Capturing The Friedmans, The Unusual promises to linger on questions of subjectivity and truth, but with the added layer of the filmmaker’s role in filming and presenting truth. Although Jarecki has been reticent to vocalize thematic links in his work, he said to Powers that the films are connected.
“In retrospect, I’m interested in secret stories,” he said, adding that The Unusual is in the rough-cut phase and will likely premiere next year.
In addition to working on The Unusual, Jarecki has also been advocating for the exoneration of Jesse Friedman, the New York man who – along with his late father Arnold – was convicted of sexually abusing children in 1988. He initially stumbled on to the story while pursuing a documentary about the Park Avenue childrens’ clown scene, of which Friedman’s brother David was a major star.
Capturing The Friedmans recounted the family’s disintegration using home movie footage and interviews with witnesses and victims, who have since accused law enforcement officials of employing intimidation and coercion tactics and of fabricating evidence to satisfy a witch-hunt mentality that gripped the community.
The case was back in the news last summer when the District Attorney’s office in Nassau County, New York released the results of a three-year review into the case, which reaffirmed Friedman’s conviction.
In the decade following the film’s release, Jarecki has gone from outside observer to impassioned advocate, continuing to conduct interviews and shoot footage related to the police investigation, which he maintains was flawed and biased.
After showing a new trailer comprising clips from the original film and the newly shot footage, he explained why he voluntarily shared his findings with the D.A. despite his skepticism of the review process. His reasoning was twofold, he said: he not only had unique access to witnesses that were reticent to speak with law enforcement officials, but he also did not want to create a precedent where he submitted the footage only because it was subpoenaed.
Asked by Powers if he will use the material to make a follow-up feature, he insisted that his only priority right now is to clear Friedman’s name.
“The truth is I wasn’t and I haven’t been [making another documentary],” he said. “You can see from this stuff that there is another movie in there, but I don’t know if I want to go there.”
Although he unequivocally believes in Freidman’s innocence, he does not regret giving both sides of the case equal weight in the original film, or its marketing campaign, which included the tagline “Who do you believe?”
At the time, the film provoked debates that were so heated, theater owners would call the distributor to complain that they couldn’t clean the theater because audience members were arguing too intensely to leave. “Sometimes it would go out into the parking lot,” he said.
“I think we made the film the right way,” he added. “The fact that we allowed the audience to reach their own conclusions… is the reason it became well-known.”
- The TIFF Doc Conference continues today and tomorrow (September 11)