The scandal that rocked Pennsylvania State University in 2012, when longtime coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of molestation charges and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison, continues to reverberate throughout the community. It’s no surprise that “Happy Valley,” a documentary about the story, has hit a nerve. But now a rogue activist is taking advantage of the film’s upcoming release to proclaim Sandusky’s innocence, and goading Sandusky’s relatives into joining him.
As part of an ongoing effort to exonerate Sandusky, talk radio host John Ziegler has illegally posted clips online from “Happy Valley,” which Music Box Films opens this Friday, and circulated a statement on behalf of the Sandusky family about the content of the film. Ziegler, who previously directed the television documentary “Blocking the Path to 9/11,” maintains a website disputing claims against Sandusky.
In “Happy Valley,” documentarian Amir Bar-Lev’s portrait of the Penn State community in the wake of the Sandusky allegations, Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son Matt discusses his experiences as one of his father’s victims. Since “Happy Valley” premiered at Sundance in January, Matt Sandusky has become a national activist on the issue of sexual abuse, joining Bar-Lev on the festival circuit and making an appearance on “Oprah Prime” in July.
In response, Jerry Sandusky’s wife, Dottie Sandusky, produced an opinion piece for Pennsylvania newspaper The Patriot-News on November 3 contesting her adopted son’s claims and proclaiming her husband’s innocence. “To even think that Matt could make these horrific claims, which our whole family knew to be untrue, was simply heartbreaking,” she wrote. Sandusky also noted that she received a copy of the film from Ziegler, who sent it to her by email.
Ziegler told Indiewire that he was forwarded a link to the film provided by one of its producers. In the past week, Ziegler released a series of videos featuring eight minutes of the film along with his own commentaries disputing its claims. Separately, Ziegler posted half the movie on YouTube along with the an announcement on Twitter suggesting that he intended to publish the entire feature. The segment was taken down by the site shortly afterward. A&E Indie Films, which produced the documentary and maintains its broadcast rights, said that it was investigating its legal options regarding Ziegler’s actions. “As a company, we view Mr. Ziegler’s actions as violating our rights as copyright owner and we intend to take any and all necessary actions to protect our rights to the film,” said Molly Thompson, SVP, A&E Indie Films.
A rep for the film said that the Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Sciences, which limits the amount of footage from a film that can be available online in order to quality for the Oscar shortlist for best documentary, has ruled that the unapproved release of the clips on Ziegler’s site do not constitute a violation of the organization’s rules.
Alongside Ziegler’s posting of the clips, a statement was disseminated to members of the press earlier this week both by Ziegler and Dottie Sandusky, taking further issue with the film and crediting the remarks to “the Sandusky family.” (Ziegler said that he was not being paid as a spokesperson for the Sandusky family, but became an “informal advisor” after appearing on “The Today Show” with Dottie.)
The statement went so far as to claim that Matt Sandusky spoke out against his father’s abuse for financial gain: “The Sandusky family is disappointed, though not surprised, that Matt has chosen to continue to fabricate a story, this time for a nationally released ‘documentary.'”
In response, Bar-Lev sent a statement to Indiewire without delving into any specific allegations. “First of all, it’s clearly been a very painful time for Dottie Sandusky,
but the Sandusky crimes are not the subject of my film,” he said. “There are still some people out there who insist that the truth of what happened in Happy Valley is black and white and that they alone possess it. They live in a world of sinners and saints and condemn our film’s attempt to portray true human complexity — and fallibility — as some kind of whitewash or media conspiracy.”
Bar-Lev told Indiewire that he screened the film privately last year for several members of the late head coach Joe Paterno’s family as well as Matt Sandusky. “I was truly gratified to find that among people who have widely divergent viewpoints on this subject, each felt that they had been fairly and accurately represented,” he said. “They also said that they came away from the film with a greater sense of empathy and understanding for the other side-and it’s my hope that the people of Happy Valley itself will react similarly once the film is released.”
Meanwhile, the film’s even-keeled look at the Happy Valley community coping with its tarnished reputation and struggling to move ahead has found several high profile supporters — most recently NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, who praised the film at a recent screening in New York covered by Indiewire. “Is it the entire truth?” Costas said. “No film, no matter how well made, and this one is very well made, can tell the entire truth. But is it a contribution to the truth? Damn straight.”
The film’s distributor echoed that perspective. “As a long time Pennsylvanian and Nittany Lions fan, I immediately knew Amir’s was an important vehicle to re-examine the events in a way that wasn’t possible in the immediate aftermath,” said Music Box’s Ed Arentz. We all wish we could go back to when our illusions were intact so now on the eve of its release, it’s not surprising that that the film provokes these kind of reactions.”
The Centre Daily Times, a State College town paper, published its own opinion piece on November 5 explaining why it refused to run the Sandusky statement or Ziegler’s own claims. “The decision was easy,” the paper’s editors wrote. “Jerry Sandusky was convicted in 2012. The movie debuted 10 months ago. If that’s news, maybe we’re the ones who are ‘delusional.'”
Bar-Lev added that while he found Ziegler and the Sandusky family’s efforts frustrating, they did not take him by surprise. “Their attempt to sabotage our film before it comes out is obviously not ideal,” he said. “No filmmaker would want clips of his film being used in this way. But this only serves to make the point of the film and to remind me why I continue to make independent documentary films: to go beyond simple explanations and name-calling toward deeper truths that can truly change the way we see the world.”