When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

By Robert Silva

These true-life mysteries will keep you asking questions long after they’re over.


Fact and fiction aren’t easy to separate in these true-life tales that take the audience down a rabbit hole. Nothing is as it seems in Capturing the Friedmans, Indictment: The McMartin Trial, and Tickled — film investigations that only get more perplexing as they progress. Crimes are thrown into doubt. Guilt becomes a guessing game. It’s a reality warping journey, experienced by the audience. Don't expect answers at the end-credit crawl.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

The Story: High-school teacher Arnold Friedman’s house is raided, revealing a stash of child pornography. This leads to charges of molesting students in his basement — suspicions that spread to his 18-year-old son Jesse. But not all the alleged victims agree on what happened, and by whom.

The Take: Enter one of the most mind-bending of American institutions: the family. Using home movies shot by son David in the lead-up to trial, director Andrew Jarecki (The Jinx) captures the Friedman family’s implosion with claustrophobic clarity and disturbing intimacy. The fly-on-the-wall documentary brings us closer to Arnold and his son Jesse, both accused of horrible crimes, but this increased intimacy yields a hall of mirrors. Fresh revelations jerk the audience from certainty to doubt. And then back again. The audience has to trudge through the moral thicket. By the end, “capturing” the Friedmans remains an aspirational goal. A court can reach a verdict, but attempting to solve this mystery only unearths greater ones.

Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1995)

The Story: Seven preschool teachers are accused of sexual abuse in the mid-1980s. An enterprising lawyer (James Woods) takes the helm of the defense, as similar cases ripple across the country.

The Take: An intriguing companion piece to Capturing the Friedmans, this HBO docudrama explores similar subject matter, but through the familiar form of a courtroom thriller. As such, it does arrive at answers regarding the abuse allegations, but that doesn’t make it any less explosive. Step by step, the film dissects how the dueling appetites of the media and the justice system conspired to accomplish a shocking result: Toddlers make false confessions of sexual abuse; presumed guilty, people’s lives are destroyed. In the film’s interview scenes with children (drawn largely from the real-life transcripts) well-meaning therapists ask leading questions that, in many cases, planted false but permanent memories of abuse, yielding its own kind of damage. Covering the influential case over its many years, Indictment examines how the best of intentions can lead to terrifying places.

Tickled (2016)

The Story: Filmmaker David Farrier investigates the niche universe of "competitive, endurance tickling." It’s all fun and games until the New Zealand native is hit with legal threats. As he dives deeper in the subject, Farrier takes the audience into an increasingly dark space, and closer to a shadowy figure pulling the strings behind the scenes.

The Take: Much like tickling itself, the film starts off funny and then the laughter starts to feel a little desperate. And then it turns painful. Unable to get to the bottom of the bizarre tickling videos he’s uncovered, Farrier travels to the United States to examine the personalities on the margin of this sport, but is it a business, or even a fetish? Many of the young men in the tickling videos have been threatened and blackmailed. Farrier is blocked from visiting a set. The intimidation mounts. As the separate strands of the story start to come together, the docu-comedy becomes at techno-thriller, with the biggest twist reserved for the head-spinning finale. Like all these films, it’s a journey you have to take to understand.