Neither devil nor saint: Amir Bar-Lev discusses Happy Valley documentary
If you go into “Happy Valley,” the new documentary by filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, looking for a takedown of late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, you’re not going to find it. Nor will you find a bashing of the Penn State administration, Penn State students or Penn State fans. The film rehashes the crimes of longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky but does not solely dwell on them.
“Happy Valley” presents no true villain, and the viewer is left with immense moral ambiguity. And yet, the 98-minute film is one of the most thorough and nuanced assessments of the Penn State sex abuse scandal I’ve ever seen. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a Penn State alumna).
Bar-Lev (“The Tillman Story”) offers a clinical examination of hot-button themes -- a football-first mindset, the deification of sports heroes, the culture of silence -- without injecting his own voice. Rather, he relies on incredible detail from more than two years of footage and interviews with key players, including candid conversations with Paterno’s widow, Sue, and emotional testimony from Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt.
“Happy Valley” opens in New York on Nov. 19, and in Los Angeles and digital platforms on Nov. 21. Below is a Q&A with Bar-Lev.
SI: What do you hope viewers get out of the film?
AB: What we tried to do is try to get away from the finger-pointing and try to understand this as a cultural story. I think there’s much to learn from the failings of people around Jerry Sandusky and writing it off as a conspiracy to save the football brand is too easy. More is at work here.
SI: Emotional testimony from Matt Sandusky is a huge focal point in the movie. (Matt, the Sanduskys’ adopted son, famously turned against Jerry in the middle of his trial). Tell me about your relationship with Matt. Was he reluctant to be involved?
AB: Matt was the last person we interviewed. It took us at least a year to be in the film. He wasn’t seeking publicity. His story is unique because he was involved in the Sandusky household, so he had a vantage other victims didn’t have. But his story had innumerable similarities to other victims, so while we spoke to several victims, we used Matt -- and only used Matt -- his story is representative of that of the victims.
SI: Sue, Jay and Scott Paterno are featured pretty prominently throughout the film. What is one thing they said that surprised you?
AB: We were very lucky that the Paternos were as open to our crew and our investigation as they were. They really let us into their lives. And I agree with them, that Joe Paterno is neither a devil nor a saint. The question of whether Joe did enough is a fascinating one and one that everyone is going to need to answer for themselves. That’s kind of what our film is about.
One thing Sue said -- that people like to tear down something that they think is better than they are -- is something that really resonated with me. For decades, Joe Paterno and Penn State were seen as exemplars of something virtuous. In today’s social climate, it’s not too surprising that people were consciously or unconsciously hoping for a takedown.
SI: What was Matt Sandusky’s reaction to seeing this film? How about the Paternos’?
AB: We showed Matt Sandusky and the Paterno family the film before anybody else saw it. I think I can safely speak for both parties that they thought the film was fair and represented their positions accurately. That’s what documentary film can do and why I love this medium.
SI: Dottie Sandusky recently wrote an op-ed for Penn Live defending her husband while dismissing your film as well as Matt’s allegations against Jerry. What was your contact with Dottie like throughout production? What did you think of that letter, and her current state?
AB: I’m sure it’s not easy to be a Sandusky these days, and I feel compassion for her. I believe Jerry is not innocent. That has been established by the court. We are so convinced of Jerry’s guilt that we chose to focus on other things in the film. A man as sociopathic as Jerry Sandusky appears to be is of less interest to me than the other shades of gray of the people around him. “Happy Valley” is really not a film about Jerry Sandusky; it’s about the town and the culture. So I turned my attention mostly away from Jerry’s sociopathic crimes and those who maintain his innocence and call for a “media conspiracy.”
SI: Do you think Penn State had a “Paterno problem”?
AB: Sure, I think some Penn Staters sanctified Joe Paterno in a way that even he was uncomfortable with. But I wouldn’t say the moral of this story is that Penn State had a “Joe Paterno problem.” I think that human beings have a deification problem and America has a spectacle problem. There are much bigger issues at work, and that’s why this story took on the life that it has. The finger-pointing ignores the size of this problem. For America to point its fingers at Happy Valley and say, “that town had a problem with football,” that sounds pretty hypocritical to me.
SI: On Wednesday, court documents revealed that the NCAA had regular contact with Louis Freeh during his supposedly independent investigation of Penn State. What is your reaction to the news?
AB: It’s clear that there was a rush to judgment. Even though we are finding out disturbing things about how Louis Freeh and the NCAA conducted their business, the fact is that Joe Paterno, in his own words, said he knew that something of a sexual nature had happened with a young boy and he told his superior. And that was it. To me, there’s an interesting enough moral question there that I don’t think is affected by these revelations.