Happy Valley (2014)

In this country, many can agree that rape, molestation, and using manipulation to do so is not only legally wrong, but also completely morally unacceptable. Society wonders where those with a preconceived idea that rape and molestation are okay, and one has to assume that such people who do pursue such outrageous acts are very, are actually very sick.

Jerry Sandusky raped and molested children and pursued this personal goal of his through manipulation. Amir Bar-Lev’s (Producer/Director/Writer) documentary film, Happy Valley, observes this and examines the people who chose to protect him, even if their eyes were cast down in an ignorant haze. Society wonders if those who condoned such acts were also manipulated themselves, and one must assume that they were. Regardless, is it somewhat acceptable to look down, away from the horrors of reality, if they are too opaque to notice at the moment, but once the truth is revealed…it is better to take action. Look straight ahead at the opposing force, and that blank stare it holds, and challenge it with every inch of reason, and more importantly, heart, that you might have. Happy Valley does just this.

Spread through newspaper clippings, on online press outlets, and social media posts, many readers and users of these sites have posted, “shared,” and expressed the blatant sexual assault that Jerry Sandusky subjected his victims to. How could such a respectable man do such horrible things to impressionable children? How could the men who worked around and supported him condone this? Amir Bar-Lev chose to examine this, to delve into the words of the people who surrounded him during this time, including one of his victims, his own adopted son. As the documentary presents it, Jerry Sandusky’s family didn’t seem to know what he was doing behind closed doors with the boys he had brought to games: as a reward, a gift that screams keep quiet, if you won’t tell, I won’t.

Clearly these children were manipulated. They were given perks in exchange for their innocence. As many rapists and molesters do, Jerry Sandusky manipulated these boys by giving them options that appealed to them most.

Under normal circumstances, a lot of boys want to go to football games. They are fun, entertaining, and it’s a part of childhood for many boys…to be a part of a team, or to watch a team succeed. But Sandusky exploited this. He took advantage, and this is where the lies he formulated really took their place among the saddest occurrences that have happened in college football. How could a sport that is so full of life, and fun, be turned into a sick game of manipulation? As the documentary shows, Sandusky performed these acts of manipulation so blatantly, and this is why he got away with it. It’s important to understand how such horrors occur, rather than why. The “why?” is something that one really doesn’t have to know, because only the perpetrator, in this case, Sandusky, really knows why exactly he chose to rape and molest children. The how will tell people the signs to look out for in the future, when all seems well.

Sandusky brought the children he abused out in public, to games and events. A great treat, I guess it seemed, when behind closed doors, he chose to rape and molest them. Happy Valley exhibits that this is why so many people didn’t realize that something was wrong. One expects that after a rape, the individual who performs the violent act of degradation will flee the scene, but it was very clear that Jerry Sandusky knew better than to run. Happy Valley shows that if he had left suddenly, without explanation, or cut off contact with these children, he would have been caught sooner. Here is where the sickness of the crimes he committed really took shape and revealed themselves as a formulated, premeditated plot to deceive the society he had worked so hard to impress. The documentary shows people, even those who were close to Jerry Sandusky, that society was deceived by this plot, these notions to cut off all ties of rescue for these children—these young, impressionable boys.

At one point in the documentary, tourists flock around a statue of Joe Paterno to take photos with it before it is torn down. Was taking this statue down rightful? You’ll have to decide based on the sufficient evidence that is revealed in Happy Valley. Paterno sent emails revealing that he knew of Sandusky’s abuses against the boys that he raped and molested. In one short line of an email thread, it is revealed that Paterno said that he would take care of these abuses. He eventually reported it, with a short time lapse in between his report. For the benefit of avoiding a scandal, it seems, that Paterno attempted to slip these abuses beneath the cover of a respectable institution.

Throughout the film, there are different scenes focused on a mural of individuals who have presumably shaped the positivity of Penn State University. Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno were both a part of this mural, their individual figures monuments for the university. The initial mural is first shown. After the documentary progresses to different scenes, the mural reappears. Throughout the course of the documentary, the mural’s artist decides to paint Jerry Sandusky out of his respectable cover. Another scene shows the artist painting a halo on Joe Paterno. Later in the documentary, the artist removes Paterno’s halo, when it is revealed that he might not have reported Sandusky the way he should have—with force and without resistance. Eventually, the artist painted a flower into Paterno’s hand, after he passed away. At one point, the mural’s artist mentions that deciding whether or not to remove Paterno’s halo was the hardest thing he’s ever done. Hyperbole does not work when you’re talking about something as serious as sexual crimes against children.

Regardless, Joe Paterno did not commit this crime, he only chose to condone it. Amir-Bar Lev said at the Hamptons International Film Festival Q & A: “Joe Paterno went from, overnight basically, went from being this sanctified paragon of virtue to a person who was reviled by most of America.” The real focus should be on Jerry Sandusky and how he was able to commit these crimes.

There is a scene in Happy Valley where, presumably, Penn State football fans are attempting to take photographs with the statue of Paterno that was to be taken down. The documentary shows that it was incredibly difficult for Paterno’s family to know that their husband and father’s credibility was now tainted and that such monuments that were established in his honor were going to be dismantled and discarded as trash. For his family, who hadn’t known of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual exploits, it was incredibly difficult, the documentary shows, transiently. For the children who were abused, one can only assume that it was and is still incredibly difficult to move past the fact that they were tricked by a man of power—similar to a witch who only acts upon his victims with a simplistic motive, driven by the impulsivity of carelessness— with candy and game tickets. An activist who was daringly standing in the photographs that these fans were trying to take before the statue was taken down, assured that the people he seemed to be bothering, or so they said, that he had the right to be standing there, as they complained. After calling one of the men, who wished to take a photograph with Joe Paterno’s statue, a “pedophile enabler,” the activist was verbally abused by this fan’s insults. Although Joe Paterno was not a pedophile, it is implied that because Paterno wasn’t as forceful about finding justice for these children as he thought, he directly became a condoner of these acts, and the people who wish to hold Joe Paterno on a pedestal, are pedophile enablers themselves.

During the Q & A after the screening of Happy Valley at Hamptons International Film Festival (2014), Director Amir Bar-Lev spoke of semantics, drawing upon symbols. How his previous films were focused on symbols of a “hero” and an “angel,” and how, in a way, Happy Valley was a film that partially touched upon fatherhood—it is not so much applied to Jerry Sandusky as a father, but to his adopted son who protects his own children from the abuse that his adoptive father subjected him to. Sadly, this happened, and initially, in the documentary, Sandusky’s adopted son denied that these acts of abuse happened to him, because he, like the other children Sandusky abused, did not realize what was happening to them at the time, because of the manipulation they were subjected to.

Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt Sandusky, is a father who builds for his children. To protect them, to keep them safe, and in this documentary, he has assured his children that the people who they knew as grandparents “are not good people.” Matt fills a wall in his basement for his children, and before anything else it is a labor of love.

On a larger scale, Happy Valley touches upon problems within our society that are happening every day, among people in power. If a person has the opportunity to direct a situation, he or she should remember that taking advantage of another human being, depending on the situation, is illegal, immoral, and disgusting, whether it is sexual, emotional, mental, and/or physical abuse you are subjecting that person to. People are not only traumatized by sexual abuse, but there are many situations when their lives are permanently ruined if they cannot handle the situation properly, through therapy or emotional support by non-abusive family members and friends.

It’s also important to remember that Penn State as a university should not be blamed for the actions of the few individuals, who either pursued or condoned such abuses. The team players, students, staff & faculty, and other members of the administration who had no idea what was happening should not be blamed. There were many people who were included in this film who assured, with honest demeanors, that they had no idea what was happening behind closed doors, or even, within open locker rooms. In contrast, there are a few individual administrators, who according to the documentary, were to be reprimanded for condoning these abuses for, simply, not reporting implications of these abuses. Amir Bar-Lev mentioned that it may happen in 2015 now, and that their trial had been pushed back since the making of this film.

Matt Sandusky fills a wall in his and his children’s basement, and it is love and protection that drives him. When so much wrong has been done to a person, the fact that he is able to continue to love and care for the people that he, noticeably, unconditionally loves is something that more people should learn to do. There’s a lot of negativity in this film; the general premise is very depressing. But it ends on a positive note…that someone, and people in general, who have suffered through so much can and will have a chance to make their lives better every day. The honesty within this film does not make up for the dishonesty that the manipulator ticket salesman extraordinaire practiced for much too long, but, perhaps, it brings to light questions that weren’t answered to those who read off the sides of days old newspaper clippings in the street. It fills in the blanks for the people who didn’t know what was truly happening, and more importantly, how the victim turned heroes really do prevail once they fill in the blanks, or really, the walls themselves.

Before you accept an offer, recognize the motive, the setting, the tone of voice. Happy Valley will teach you to do this, and in a world that hopefully progresses with such honest filmmaking…perhaps the world can become somewhat of a better place.

Amir Bar-Lev gave credit to Molly Thompson, a person who he told the audience “I do all my films with.”

Happy Valley screened at Hamptons International Film Festival this October (2014)

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