PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival program guide describes “Happy Valley” as a documentary that “delves beneath the headlines to create a modern American parable of guilt, redemption and identity.” It is all that but it is also something more, something explosive that has been kept under wraps until now and almost didn’t happen at all.
“Happy Valley” is an examination of the circumstances behind and the reaction to the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, a key member of the Penn State football coaching staff convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys. This thorough, thoughtful and heartbreaking film directed by “The Tillman Story’s” Amir Bar-Lev premieres Sunday.
It marks the first time Matt Sandusky, Jerry’s adopted son and the subject of a publicity vortex of his own, has spoken publicly about the events leading up to his own abuse.
“Am I going to remain the coward I am or am I going to risk everything to tell the truth,” is how Sandusky describes his eventual decision to offer to testify at his father’s trial in the film. Initially, he admits, he felt “I had to be loyal to the family. I wasn’t going to betray him. Yet here I sit, betrayed by them all.”
Appearing both sensitive and articulate on film, Sandusky is especially thoughtful when talking about how he felt being taken out of poverty and away from his birth mother and adopted by the coach and his family, who were major celebrities in Happy Valley, the local term for the State College, Pa., area where the university is located.
“His name was a golden ticket,” the younger Sandusky says. “It was good to be next to him, to feel powerful, to feel that people envied me instead of looking down on me.”
“If people thought of Joe Paterno as god,” he says at another point, referring to the team’s head coach, “Jerry was like Jesus. They were to me the two most powerful people. They could do whatever they wanted, they could do no wrong.”
Strong as this material is, as producer Ken Dornstein explains, it came very close to not being in the film at all.
“It was kind of a non-starter for most of the victims to speak because they were in civil litigation with the university, and their lawyers erred on the side of caution,” Dornstein notes.
Then, at the end of August, Sandusky and several of the other victims settled with Penn State. “We knew his story could stand in for a lot of the victims’ stories, and we waited for Matt, we held the film for him,” Dornstein says.
Director Bar-Lev says the Sandusky interview was the last one they did. “It took place the week before Thanksgiving,” Bar-Lev says. Given Sundance’s mid-January schedule, “we thought there would be no way to meet this deadline. I first described the situation as a Hail Mary pass, but really it’s a timing play, things came together.”
Bar-Lev says he was attracted to the Penn State story, as he had been to the tale of Pat Tillman — who died serving in Afghanistan after giving up an NFL career — because “when you have a story that has that kind of explosive momentum you have to scratch your head and ask why people find this so interesting, what gives the story traction.”
The answer, the director felt, was “the moral parable involved” in a narrative that pivoted around how much revered head coach Paterno knew about Sandusky’s actions and what he did and didn’t do as a result: “People were agonizing over what they would have done in this situation, how responsible they would have been.”
Not surprisingly, Bar-Lev found that the residents of the Happy Valley area were “really quite riven, there are a lot of fault lines. We challenged ourselves to let everybody put their best foot forward, to see things from as many perspectives as we could.”
That intention is in line with one of the reasons Bar-Lev got into documentary work in the first place. “It’s a useful exercise in attempting to acquire empathy, something that doesn’t come easy for me, doesn’t come easy for anyone. Some documentaries are exercises in finger-pointing; the ones I like best are exercises in holding opposing viewpoints at one time.”
Though Matt Sandusky’s presence is the film’s boldface name, its heart is a subtle and balanced examination of the role that cultural factors — specifically the reverence for college football that runs through many large universities — had in keeping Jerry Sandusky’s actions from being exposed for so long.
“I think the central idea of the film is expressed by Matt Jordan, a Penn State professor, who says that you deal with things in America by creating a shaming spectacle,” Bar-Lev says.
“A handful of people in Happy Valley were pointing fingers and saying, ‘This isn’t about us, it’s about them.’ The rest of the country is pointing fingers at Happy Valley, saying ‘There’s something rotten in that culture.’
“I’m interested in finding where the widest circle of responsibility lies.”