There is an individual and collective desire to forget a tragedy and move on, almost as soon as the tragedy has occurred or been announced. When things are too painful or too terrible for us to deal with, we look the other way; when a city miles away from us is in the midst of an uprising, we turn off CNN; whenever something bad is happening, the urge to flee to our own happy place is incredibly strong, and most of us succumb to it—if not immediately, then shortly after the bad thing has presented itself. Ferguson, Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky (remember him?)—we almost can’t wait until the outrage period is over, so things can get back to “normal.”
Happy Valley is the name commonly used for the Penn State college area, and director Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That) has chosen this as the title for his latest documentary. Joy and darkness run deep in Happy Valley, as Bar-Lev has taken on the difficult task of telling the story of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse trial from the perspective of a culture, rather than a single individual. Instead of simply exploring the guilty and/or the innocent, Bar-Lev weaves in and out of Happy Valley, and creates a narrative that is about the psyche, feelings and energy of a group of people—all of whom are desperately trying, for better or for worse, to move on from a tragedy. The people we meet in Happy Valley (students, professors, theorists, victims, and family of the accused) are bound by a scandal, even as they are completely unique in their interpretation of the Sandusky narrative, in which Joe Paterno played a major role (either in reality, in the media or both). Happy Valley also invites us to consider our own place in an American culture that loves a tale of crime and punishment, so long as our own lives eventually get back to normal.
Paste caught up with Bar-Lev to talk about his powerful new film, social and cultural responsibility, and the task of the artist to write (and rewrite) history.
Paste Magazine: First of all, thank you so much for making this documentary. I was honestly angry, while watching most of it, but I’m so glad this story is being told. I want to start by asking you if what we’re seeing here in the final cut is the story you set out to tell, or if things shifted once you started working on the project.
Amir Bar-Lev: The story always changes. We try to go into these things with as few preconceived notions as possible. We knew with this particular film that we wanted to take as many different viewpoints as possible, and let them all put their best foot forward, so to speak. Over the course of the two years that we were making Happy Valley, we were continually jumping from one viewpoint to another. So, every time we talked to somebody else, the story shifted.
We also knew early on that making a film solely about Jerry Sandusky’s crimes was not what we wanted to do. Whenever something horrible like this happens, of course there’s the personal responsibility of the criminal, but then there’s the social responsibility of the rest of us who let the criminal get away with it. I was interested in questions about who let these kids down. Was it just the football program? Was it just the people at the school? Or was it something bigger than that?
Paste: What was one of the first interviews that you shot, and what was that experience like?
Bar-Lev: There were so many interviews, it’s difficult to remember. But I can tell you that our first extended visit to Happy Valley happened on the weekend that the Freeh Report was released.
Bar-Lev: That was unlike anything I’ve ever filmed or experienced. You were seeing, before your eyes in real time, a town having its sense of self and sense of identity shaken to the core. Even though it’s not the beginning of our film, in a way it’s where our inquiry starts. Freeh pointed the finger not only at Jerry, and not only at the alleged conspirator, but at the culture in Happy Valley. To me, that’s a very interesting allegation, particularly because the culture of Happy Valley is similar to the culture of the rest of the country.
Paste: Let’s talk about the painting, and the artist who kept going back to change things throughout the scandal. He paints over Sandusky, he changes Paterno’s image. He’s sort of rewriting history. And it also spoke to this expectation we have that art be pure and truthful, which made me think of Marla from My Kid Could Paint That. Why was it important for you to focus on that Penn State mural?
Bar-Lev: Documentary is caught in that problematic middle ground between journalism and art. Certainly, there are many worthy documentaries that pick up where journalists leave off, and go deeper into the story. That’s what I’m trying—trying—to do with my films. I’m aspiring to the art end of the continuum. Art really hasn’t been on my mind lately, but I will say an art like satire doesn’t provide a bullet list of action points. It seeks to make the familiar strange, and asks you to see something you think you understand in a different light.
If you can walk away from a piece of art and explain exactly why it works, then in a way the art has failed. I want people to walk away from this piece of work with differing takes on what it means.
Bar-Lev: I find it hard to talk about this film, because I don’t want to give away the CliffNotes to it. I’m doing a film about the Grateful Dead, and the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter, has always felt deeply uncomfortable being asked the meaning of a song. I should say very emphatically that I’m not at all comparing myself to him (laughs). I’m only saying that I understand him when he says that the meaning of the song is the song. If it could be expressed in any other way, it would be, and it wouldn’t be a song.
I attended a Q&A with Laura Pointras after The Oath, and someone asked her a question, and she told them, “I’m not gonna interpret my film for you.” (laughs) And at the time I thought it was, you know, kind of prickly! But I get it now. My film puts a bunch of seemingly contradictory things together, under one umbrella. If you ask me how I really feel about the story, I will say, “The film is how I feel.” I’ve been criticized and complimented for the film being objective, but I don’t think it’s objective at all. I think it’s subjective, and I think it has a perspective—and it’s my perspective. But I leave room for my audience to understand my perspective and feel something different.
Paste: I’m glad that you said that, because I was wondering why I was so angry for most of the film. Some of the most difficult scenes for me were the ones with Joe Paterno’s family. I did feel sympathy for them, but I was very angry at what I saw as their attempts to vindicate him. How did you handle those scenes, and were they difficult for you?
Bar-Lev: No, that’s the other thing I love about this medium. [Roger Ebert] once said it can be an empathy machine. In a situation like that, where you’re face to face with somebody, you may not totally agree with them, but you’re trying to be empathetic with them. And you’re hoping to get enough material from them so that your audience will find empathy for them—and maybe they’ll feel some of what you just described.
Happy Valley is a film about guilt, but we also see something even more interesting—the performance of guilt. Tyler, the young man who you interviewed in his dorm room, talks about this. In what way did you see the presence of the media—perhaps, yourself included—effecting this story and the way people reacted?
Bar-Lev: The reason I love Tyler’s approach is because, in his minimalist opinion, he’s actually taking the same maximalist position that I adhere to. He is of the opinion that this really should be the story about one person, and that this should have never turned into a story about anything more than Jerry Sandusky. I’m a bleeding heart liberal, so I think that whenever there’s a Jerry Sandusky, his criminal behavior, and his anti-social behavior happens to the rest of us. And I’m including myself in this. I think that Sandusky—like an Osama bin Laden—is just the tip of an iceberg, and we have so much more to learn from the whole iceberg than the tip.
So, there’s that moment after the report comes out, when the guy in the football stadium yells at Tyler, “It’s not about [winning] today!” And Tyler says, “Yes it is!” I agree with Tyler. I think that guy in the stadium is full of shit. So that leads to the question of whether or not there is a discussion to be had about football itself. And although Tyler might disagree, I think there is.
Paste: Now, although I spent much of the film angry, I was so pleased to see the closing shots with Matt Sandusky and his family. Can you talk about working with him, and why you chose to end the film that way?
Bar-Lev: It was the first time I’ve ever known, while I was getting the last few shots of my production, that I was also getting the final shots of the film itself. While we were setting up the microphones for that scene, I was using Spotify to find that final piece of music, and it was unlike anything that’s ever happened to me before. I think that the reason I knew it was going to be the end of the film, is because I felt like we had been on a two-year journey, and the journey had come to an end. And the questions we had were being answered in a way.
The “journalism versus art” question comes up again, because I don’t want to try and paraphrase “the answer,” but on some level it’s a film about fatherhood. And when we see Matt being a father, it’s a proper ending for the film.
Paste: I agree. Thank you so much for this!
Bar-Lev: Thank you.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.