” — Bar-Lev’s scathing documentary
about the notorious Penn State football/sex-abuse scandal — examines life in State College, Pa., one year after convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky’s 40-count indictment, the accusations of coverup against longtime head coach and local deity Joe Paterno (who died in 2012) and the baring of a community’s soul. The film screens as part of the DOC NYC shortlist
on November 17, opens November 19 (NY), November 21 (LA and multiple Digital Platforms).
It’s precisely the kind of subject, Bar-Lev said, “that documentary is well suited for, a complex story where you spend a lot of time, and immerse yourself.
“Frankly,” he continued, “we had to make inroads on different sides of this very hotly contested issue and it was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. Shooting in public with some of our subjects was a discomforting thing to do, because you might run into somebody from the other side of the debate in the supermarket or something, and they might say, ‘I didn’t know you were talking to this guy’ and what you have to do is pay very close attention to what you’re saying about what the film is going to be, and make sure you don’t lie.”
You have to imagine, he said, that there’s going to come a time when you have to show your subjects your film. “Show them a film that is empathetic toward them. It may be empathetic toward their adversaries also, but I trust the documentary form to help people rise above the fray. And this experience has been exactly that.”
The film deals with the student riot in support of Paterno (“probably the first riot in favor of authority in the history of riots,” Bar-Lev said), some rather shameful prioritizing of college football over child welfare, and the collateral victims of the scandal, which included the Sandusky and Paterno families as well as the wider football community of State College. They’ve all seen it.
“We showed the film to Matt Sandusky,” Bar-Lev said of Jerry Sandusky’s son, “and then the Paterno family the same morning and it was very gratifying to see that both felt the film had been fair. I would even say that there are a lot of different ways of reading the film and everybody’s reading it a different way. But nobody who has seen it has felt it’s unfair or that we were duplicitous about our intentions.”
In the wake of Tuesday’s elections, “Happy Valley” can’t help but be a metaphor for the American that lies outside of college and football and the mountain-rimmed region of State College.
“It’s a very simplistic to think this story has to do with money,” Bar-Lev said. “It has much more to do with identity. These people who looked the other way could have easily thrown Jerry Sandusky under the bus. It would have been a blight for a minute and they would have recovered from it. But it didn’t comport with their understanding of themselves.”
He pointed to the testimony of Penn State wide-receiver coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed Sandusky’s rape of a young boy. “He said, ‘This is happening in my shower? It just didn’t compute,’” Bar-Lev said. “I’m paraphrasing, of course, but he simply didn’t understand what he was looking at. The idea of Happy Valley as a place where nothing bad ever happens is much more responsible for Jerry Sandusky than money or anything else. Sue Paterno said, ‘We didn’t talk about pedophilia because people don’t do that to each other.’ But you know what? They do.”
Considering the ongoing hearings into Ray Rice’s elevator assault on his then-fiancee and various other athlete-related scandals, it’s easy to see sports as the last (or first) refuge of sociopaths in America. But Bar-Lev doesn’t quite agree.
“I’m deeply suspicious of any arena of human life where you try to lose yourself in a crowd and sports is a major area where that happens in our culture,” he said. “When you lose yourself in a crowd you abdicate your responsibilities.”
You can say that about sports fans, he said — or about human nature itself. “It’s a little bit an oversimplified for Americans to point a finger at football fans and say they’re crazy, or a mob, or whatever,” Bar-Lev said. “I think we all love an opportunity to be part of a mob. And in ‘Happy Valley,’ I wanted to make the mob the bad guy, not Jerry Sandusky.”