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Happy Valley: A question of complicity

By DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published May 9, 2014 at 4:00 a.m.

Throughout his career, documentary director Amir Bar-Lev has raised challenging questions about subjects we thought we already knew. With his Emmy and Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winning The Tillman Story, he revealed that the circumstances surrounding the killing of Pat Tillman -- the professional football player turned special forces soldier who died in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan -- were more inconvenient than the recruiting poster imagery promulgated by the U.S. military, and that Tillman was a more complicated, if no less heroic, individual than the gung-ho patriot presented in the official version.

Bar-Lev's latest film Happy Valley examines how the community around Penn State University reacted to the revelation that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky repeatedly molested boys (he was tried, convicted and incarcerated) and examines the university's tepid response to the revelation. (The documentary opens this year's Little Rock Film Festivalat 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Ron Robinson Theater. A second showing will be held at 12:10 p.m. Thursday, also at the Robinson.) Individual tickets are $15 and Bar-Lev is scheduled to to take audience questions.)

While Sandusky's crimes have already been heavily chronicled and the former linebacker coach will likely spend the rest of his days in prison, Bar-Lev, speaking by phone from New York says, "The reason I seek out these stories that are pulled from headlines is because I'm fascinated by how different the true story is from kind of the accepted narrative. In the case of Happy Valley, what interested me was the town reckoning with its own mythology, so I chose to focus more on the people around Jerry Sandusky than on Jerry Sandusky himself.

"It seemed to me that the more interesting and more ambiguous and more challenging part of the story lies not with the heinous crimes of an individual but with the questions of responsibility and morality and iconography and the role of the people in the town solicited."

In following that approach, Bar-Lev devoted far more time to Sandusky's adopted son Matt, who initially denied the charges against his father but later came forward toward the end of the trial acknowledging he, too, had been abused.

"One of the tragedies of this case is that the victims of Jerry Sandusky, many of them were unwilling or hesitant to come forward. Many victims of child sexual abuse will initially deny that they were abused. That's because they wrongly feel complicit to the crime, and often the response of the community kind of reinforces that sense. The victims feel that life will be even worse for them if they were to disclose that they were harboring this secret," he says.

"Matt Sandusky has taken a huge beating in the town because people point out that he initially said he wasn't abused. One of the ways we earned his trust was by taking the time to understand the nature of this kind of a crime."

From Hero to Human

Happy Valley also re-examines the legacy of Penn State's legendary head football coach Joe Paterno, who might have retired as the coach with the most victories in college football history had it not been for the scandal. Throughout the film, residents of Happy Valley debate whether the beloved coach was still worthy of the reverence he once commanded.

"You couldn't script a story like this. It's got so many challenging moral dimensions to it, " Bar-Lev says. "I think Joe Paterno is kind of in a crucible of those questions because we know that he understood that something of a sexual nature had happened to a child, and we know that he fulfilled the letter of the law when he told his superiors about it and did nothing more. But one asks some really fertile questions about whether that was enough and what we would do in his place."

An All-American Obsession

Possibly the most disturbing question running through Happy Valley is if Penn State's devotion to football enabled Sandusky to commit his crimes for as long as he did. Bar-Lev says that blaming the town is too simplistic.

"I think the country is devoted to football, and I would even say we live in a country that's committed to spectacle and distraction. I include myself in that. I'm not a sports fan, but I'm just as guilty as the next guy of putting blinders on when I can and choosing what kind of issues in my community are my problems and which aren't. To me that's what makes this such a resonant story. If there hadn't been these questions of the culpability of the town, this story wouldn't have hit the international nerve it seems to have," he says.

"Nonfiction can propose questions to the audience about their own values and their own choices that are useful questions to ask. Some nonfiction is engaged in finger-pointing, and it lets the audience off the hook, and the audience can walk out of the theater and say I'm not that person. It had nothing to do with me. It's about shortcomings that I don't share.

"The films I'm interested in making and watching are films that make me question my own actions and my own values."

MovieStyle on 05/09/2014

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