For months, the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal dominated the airwaves; it was almost impossible to escape the story. The feeding frenzy of the media has since set its talons in pursuit of comedian Bill Cosby, the latest subject in the morality spectacle that is part and parcel of the American justice system today.
Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley, which debuted at Sundance, takes as its subject the ramifications of the Sandusky scandal upon all the peripheral players – football coach Joe Paterno who, as a result of his handling of the situation, was fired from the position he had held as coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions for more than sixty years; Paterno’s wife and sons; Sandusky’s adoptive son, Matt; and all the students, faculty, and football fans of Penn State University who were so deeply impacted. “I’m less interested in the focus on Jerry’s crimes and more interested in how we cauterize the wound so that we can move on with business as usual, as a culture,” the filmmaker relates.
Bar-Lev is a phenomenally skilled director who provides a fascinating look at “JoePa” or “Saint Joe” (as Paterno had been nicknamed by his fans) and the Frankenstein that Paterno inadvertently birthed in the mob culture of his football fans. Paterno speaks with reverence about football as a palliative to an otherwise “essentially tough life,” picnics and football matches as occasions to meet up with friends you only see once in a while. “College football is something special,” Paterno sighs. “Hopefully, we will never lose sight of that or screw it up” — one shudders at the irony of his pronouncement. The contrast between Paterno’s wholesome intentions and the image of his fans overturning cars in the street just subsequent to his termination by the Penn State University Board of Directors is a frightening and arresting juxtaposition.
Muralist Michael Pilato becomes a surrogate in the documentary for how we all wrestle to process such new information about our collective heroes. Erasing Sandusky from the frame of his portrait altogether, Pilato rewrites the living history. Later, Pilato paints a halo around Paterno’s head, he removes the halo; and alas Pilato makes his peace with the icon, settling on the symbol of a single white flower painted in Paterno’s hand. An airplane flies across the sky with a banner proclaiming, “Take the statue down, or we will,” and the removal of Paterno’s campus monument recalls no less than the historic toppling of Sadam Hussein’s statue in Iraq.
It is this ability that Bar-Lev exercises in making complex ideas visual that make this a quite extraordinary documentary. Do not be put off by the topic at hand. Happy Valley is “a moral parable of our time” that you should make every effort to see.
I spoke with the documentary director Amir Bar-Lev, a Berkeley native who now makes Brooklyn his home, about Happy Valley when he was recently back in town at work on his latest project about The Grateful Dead. Bar-Lev is a graduate of Brown University, a religion major who studied film in Prague and fine-tuned his filmmaking skills over many years as a film editor. When I compliment him on his formidable achievement with Happy Valley, he humbly credits his production team with whom, he notes, he has collaborated on the past several features. Bar Lev’s previous documentaries include, The Tillman Story (which was named the top documentary of 2010 by The San Francisco Critics Circle), Fighter, and My Kid Could Paint That. With Happy Valley, I have become a fan, I tell him, and I plan to make an effort to see all his works.
Sophia Stein: Before I saw your film, Happy Valley, I felt reluctant about watching a documentary on this subject. I thought, “I’m not a football fan” and “I know this story.” But then I saw that clip on the New York Times website — the scene from your film where a protestor stands beside Joe Paterno’s statue and the reactions he elicits from Paterno’s loyal fans. That is a masterfully constructed scene. I was hooked. How did you get that scene? Did you know that guy was going to be out there with that sign?
Amir Bar-Lev: Oh, god, no. It’s too good to be true, in a way — but it is true. You see the moment that he walked into our frame; we didn’t send him in there. With documentary filmmaking, you’re always having to think quickly on your feet. In this particular case: it was this crucible of a weekend. The Freeh report had just come out, and the town was reeling. It was as if the town had been punched in the gut. We were just tacking around, trying to follow our nose where we thought the story would be. We were at the mural, and Ken Dornstein, one of the producers said, “Let’s go back, I bet there’s some heat at the statue.” So we set the camera up, and then it happened, right before our eyes.
Sophia: You stated: “I came to this story thinking that the real truth of the matter, the bottom line about Joe Paterno and the town would be there if you pushed hard enough to find it.” At the beginning, what were the questions that you were looking to specifically answer?
Bar-Lev: I don’t know if I can frame it as questions so much as describe what intrigued me. First of all, there was the riot. Somebody commented that “it was the first riot in favor of authority that anybody could remember.” That peaked my interest. Joe Paterno represented the ultimate authority in that town. This is a town that was not used to feeling “counter-cultural.” Anybody who was watching this story, was watching a major transition. It was as if you were watching Glacier National Park become not a glacier. Watching something that normally takes a long time, happening in a very short time. Wearing a Paterno t-shirt meant one thing in October 2011, and it meant a totally different thing just one month later. I’m really interested in culture.
The other thing that caught my interest were the strange things that people were saying. For instance, just before the start of the first game after Joe had been fired, Ron Brown, the Running Back’s assistant coach for Nebraska, led a brief prayer service on the field: “Lord, there are a lot of little boys who are watching this game right now who are wondering about the definition of manhood. Lord, this is it, right here.” That’s a funny thing to say, I thought. While Jerry Sandusky’s crimes mean a lot of different things to me, they don’t make me question the definition of manhood. How is kneeling down with a bunch of other men and then bashing into each other for ninety minutes restoring the definition of manhood for children? What is Brown saying, really?
There were a lot of people trying to distance themselves from Sandusky’s crime. Ron Brown was drawing a tourniquet between football and Jerry Sandusky, the rest of the town was drawing a tourniquet between Jerry Sandusky and themselves, the NCAA was drawing a tourniquet between their organization and Penn State’s football program – defending themselves by claiming these things were not at all connected. “We never had anything to do with them.” But all these things are connected; that’s what drove me to make this documentary.
I come to these films because I’m interested in ideas. There are some fascinating ideas that this story presents. It raises some very interesting moral questions. It’s not a film about football, per se. It’s not a film about Jerry Sandusky’s crimes. It’s a Shakespearean drama, pertinent to questions in the headlines right now – Bill Cosby, for example.
Sophia: The interview footage with Sandusky’s adopted son is one of the most illuminating profiles that I have ever seen of a victim of a pedophile. How did you get Matt Sandusky to share his story on camera?
Bar-Lev: The victims in this case were not able to choose the moment that their secrets were disclosed. State Marshalls or the press literally showed up at their doorsteps which was a form of secondary trauma. Because of the nature of this victimization, you need safety in disclosure. You need to know that you are not going to be held accountable, that you’re not going to be made to feel culpable. You also probably have complex feelings about the perpetrator of such abuse. Hopefully, that is something that society is just starting to learn to incorporate into our understanding of this particular type of a crime. So, we had to be very patient with Matt Sandusky, as we tried to be with all the victims. We actually interviewed several victims, and Matt in a sense became our stand-in for all of them – because he’s so eloquent, and he’s so mature.
Sophia: I appreciated that restraint, that you were protective of the victims’ identities and did not sensationalize or expose them in anyway. I did feel like Matt compassionately represented all of the victims. We learn in your film how Matt was moving from something “broken” — you show his childhood home, where there was no running water and thirty family members living in this one little house — to something perhaps “less broken,” as an adopted son in the Sandusky household. Matt actually defends his adoptive father, claiming Jerry Sandusky “tried to direct me in positive ways … Ninety percent of the time with him was enjoyable.”
Bar-Lev: One of the things about this crime that makes us uncomfortable is that Jerry and people like Jerry hide in plain sight. They don’t drive up in a van, throw you in the back of the truck after they offer you candy. They use familiar tropes in our culture. We think that someone like Jerry is just an avuncular father-figure, taking wayward kids to the right side of town and teaching them the ways that “the good people” live. That’s how we see coaches in this culture. We see the coach as a guy who can take kids from the wrong side of the tracks and use football or sports to teach them lessons which will make them like the rest of us — safe and principled. That’s what Jerry offered. That’s why Jerry was able to get away with it. The fact is, he chose his victims from the wrong side of the tracks because he knew that if somebody ever made a peep, he could say: “Look are you going to believe this alcoholic mother? She’s been arrested five times. I’m one of the most beloved figures in town. These are gold-diggers.” And that’s exactly what happened. Matt’s biological mom had a bad feeling about the Sandusky family. She raised questions, and the social workers and that apparatus dismissed the former drug addict’s concerns.
Sophia: I want to clarify my understanding of the events that led to Paterno’s termination. Assistant football coach Mike McQueary saw Sandusky commit a sexual act with a minor in the locker room of Penn State back in 2001, and he told Paterno what he saw.
Bar-Lev: Paterno took on board what McQueary had told him. Paterno actually went to the bookshelf, took down the University handbook of rules which stated: “If something like this is reported to you, you tell your superior.” So Paterno went to his superior, athletic director Tim Curley, and then he kind of washed his hands of it. And that’s really where some of the problems began.
A lot of people focused their disappointment on Joe Paterno because he had been an exemplar of doing more than just the bare minimum. There is no proof that Paterno committed a legal crime. It was more of a moral failure — of just doing the bare minimum, of never inquiring about the victim, about what had happened, about whether they had ever gotten to the bottom of this. Paterno left it in the hands of Tim Curley and Curley’s superiors.
Sophia: In your film, Paterno’s biographer recounts that after having been terminated, Paterno asked him what he thought about it all. The biographer responded, “I think you should have done more to act on the highest level of what’s right.” And Paterno admits that he wishes that he would have done more. So I asked my husband last night, “What would you have done in that situation?” So I want to ask you, what would you have done in that situation?
Bar-Lev: That’s what’s so interesting about this particular story. Thinking people, like yourself, are going to ask themselves that question.
There are two reactions to this story. The other is: what happened here is a terrible, monstrous thing that would never happen to me. The failings here are the failings of monstrous people. Jerry is a monster. I would never do that, so there is no connection between me and Jerry. Moreover, the people around Jerry Sandusky were money-crazy, football-crazy conspirators who covered for a child molester in order to bring in more dollars to their football program. I’m not that, so there’s nothing there for me. Those people should rot in hell, and our culture can move on and not be reflective.
While we may discover that there was some kind of a conspiracy – we just don’t know yet. What we do know is that decisions were made by certain individuals about what was their problem and what wasn’t their problem. Joe Paterno made a decision that this was not his responsibility. Or that his responsibility was limited to passing on this information — and not to being a hero.
Sophia: I could easily empathize with that decision because you would never want to falsely accuse somebody. It was hearsay evidence. You don’t want to play the judge; you want the courts to handle that.
Bar-Lev: Right. This didn’t make it into the film, but there’s a moment on NBC when this reporter interviews a bunch of professors at Penn State and asks, “Did any of you hear these rumors?” One of them responds, “Yes, there were rumors about Jerry Sandusky.” The woman throws her hands up and exclaims, “Then why didn’t any of you go to the police?” Her reaction is so hypocritical because only Superman flies around and says, “Anything I hear, I’m going go look into it, and I’m going to stop it with my own two hands.” The rest of us hear rumors or recognize on the periphery of our vision that there are crimes being committed, acts of violence and terrible things, and we decide that it is not our problem. Or we decide it’s a rumor, and that until there are more facts, it’s not my job to find out whether this is happening or not.
Joe Paterno was in a position to stop this. Paterno didn’t just sort of hear the foggiest rumor, and sort of decide it wasn’t his problem. He had a guy come to him and say, he saw something of a sexual nature with a young boy that Jerry Sandusky was doing in our locker room. Those were Joe Paterno’s words. He said it. He understood what it was.
Sophia: Did you try to interview McQueary?
Bar-Lev: McQueary is involved in so many lawsuits right now that his lawyers would not let him come anywhere near us.
But you asked me what I would have done in that situation, and I think it’s a really good question. Everybody is going to answer that question differently, and that’s why I think it’s a great story.
Somebody told my partner, “The film got me to understand the Holocaust better.” It’s a story that taps into a vein that runs deep throughout our culture.
Sophia: In the film, we see the Board of the University protecting the institution at all costs, and the individuals are the sacrificial lambs.
Bar-Lev: I think that the story shows that, at all costs, we do not want to think about what a failing means to the broader parameters of our culture. If there is any way to narrow the focus to one person or a handful of people — to blame them, publicly flog them, and move on, we will do it. The word scapegoat is rooted in ancient times when Hebrew tribes, once a year, would take a goat and symbolically and ritualistically place the sins of the tribe onto the goat and whip the goat until it fled their village, at which point they would consider themselves absolved. That’s what we did to Happy Valley.
Top Image: Artist Michael Pilato paints over the image of Jerry Sandusky in his mural “Inspiration,” “HAPPY VALLEY.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.
“We Are Penn State” – New York Times – Op-Ed short that features a powerful sequence from “Happy Valley”