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)

Moving Away from Cinéma Vérité and Towards a Self-Realized Subjective Documentary Cinema

By Dan Spada

Frederick Wiseman‘s firmness in not situating himself as a cinéma vérité filmmaker is entirely justified, even though there are links to be drawn between the markers of that style of filmmaking and his oeuvre. A few ways in which his films, and in particular High School (1968), do not properly align with the stylistics of cinéma vérité include the lack, or subversion by interruptive focusing, of long takes and the strategic use of editing, used to narrative ends, both of which draw attention to the subjective structure inherent within all, but specifically, his exercises in non-fiction filmmaking. Bearing the absence of narration, the fly on the wall “observer” approach, and “intimate” involvement, Wiseman’s films still seem to actively self-define against a cinéma vérité deployment. Setting up the institution as the protagonist and emphasizing different relations of power, some entirely human, but both physical and psychical, Frederick Wiseman’s High School exposes its differences from the cinéma vérité school of filmmaking both aesthetically, as well as, by extension, rhetorically. Wiseman presents the viewer with an assortment of scenarios that show the functioning of different relations of power (teacher-student and individual-institution, among other more specific ones).

After bringing the viewer into the school, and then into the classroom, with a wealth of expressive close-ups in tow, Wiseman settles into multiple scenes of disciplinary action, enacted upon both male and female students. The character of Mr. Allen, both an arbiter of social control and a teacher, is introduced within the first few minutes and turns out to be the most prominent disciplinarian over the course of the film’s 75 minute running time. His various scenes include reprimanding a student for not wearing proper attire to a gym class, being the mediator between a student and his off-screen teacher that (misguidedly, in the student’s explanation) gave him a detention, and, finally, reprimanding and doling out a suspension to a student who has hit one of his peers. Just briefly describing Mr. Allen’s scenes with a few words gives the impression that the split between powerful and powerless is simple, but looking at the language of the filmmaking and the language of the social actors allows for a more complex interpretation.

The scene in which the student protests his assigned detention, like the rest of the film, does not include a direct (visually) or indirect (aurally) inclusion of the filmmaker. It is thus the viewer’s job to deconstruct the filmmaking techniques to come the best possible reading of the scene at hand. Also like the rest of the film, this scene does not hinge on an interview, archival material, or a reenactment, but exists as an everyday, unrehearsed reality (however selected by the director to be filmed and included in the final cut). The way in which Wiseman edits his shots together assists in the viewer’s reading of the characters and situations; the way he edits his scenes together is rather like the creation of a sandcastle, the building up of components to naturally make a cohesive whole in the end, instead of the collage-like compositions of non-fiction films classically defined as cinéma vérité. Wiseman’s editing, on both the small and the large scale, draws attention to itself.

The scene begins with a medium close up profile shot of Michael, the student who has defied his teacher by walking out of class after being wrongly accused, in his portrayal of the unseen situation, of goofing off, and then pans left and downward to Mr. Allen, who is seated.

The camera then pans back right and up to Michael, who explains his case, slowly zooming in so his head fills up the frame.

After Michael finishes speaking, the camera pans back down to Mr. Allen (maintaining the close up from the previous shot) saying that he showed poor judgment and that it is his job to respect and listen to someone older than him or in a seat of authority.

The camera pans back right and down – now Mr. Allen’s hand fills up the frame, holding a card over his desk with, presumably, the information regarding Michael’s incident. Mr. Allen references the card to go against Michael’s claim that he was not assigned a detention: he reads it, and the camera pans back over (right) and up to his face.

Michael explains that it was another teacher, Mr. Walsh, who assigned it to him, while the camera lingers on Mr. Allen’s face as he listens to Michael, and then the camera pans back over (left) and up to Michael. The camera then zooms in on Michael’s facial features. The extreme close up of his face is momentarily obscured by what looks like a bobbing head in the left hand corner of the frame.

The conversation shifts in tone at the moment of this close up. Michael’s defiance, emphasized by the extreme close up on the vector of expression (his mouth), is made clear. The camera pans back over (right) to Mr. Allen’s face, while he listens to Michael explain himself. Wiseman then cuts away to an insert – an extreme close up of Mr. Allen’s hands, with a class ring on his left hand ring finger. He puts the card down, picks up a pen, and folds his hands. The camera then cuts back to an extreme close-up of Michael’s face. The camera momentarily loses focus, quickly regains it, then zooms out a little so Michael’s head, with the exception of his hair, fills the frame.

Another shift in tone occurs: the camera cuts to an over the shoulder shot from behind Michael (who is not sitting), showing other bodies in the room as Mr. Allen goes off on how Michael should be a man and take orders. Wiseman then cuts to a shot, clearly not in sequence from the last one (the audio jumps to a whistle being blown), of a close-up of Michael’s face (not standing up), as he makes a plea for his principles. The camera then pans back down and over (right) to Mr. Allen as he repeats the line about Michael proving himself to be a man. The camera zooms in on an extreme close-up of Mr. Allen’s mouth. Wiseman cuts back to Michael, who is now standing with his left arm behind his back, clutching his right arm, listening to Mr. Allen. The camera cuts back to a close-up of Mr. Allen’s face as he implores Michael to take the detention, zooming out to a medium-close after a few seconds and then quickly panning back over (left) to Michael.

The viewer is on the cusp of an abrupt ending: the camera cuts back to a medium shot of Mr. Allen asking, finally, if Michael will take the detention, as the background noise of chatter increases in volume. The camera stays on Mr. Allen as Michael says he will take it under protest. An unmistakable smile runs across Mr. Allen’s face. The camera pans back over (left) to Michael one last time, as a girl walks across the bottom left hand corner of the frame and Michael confirms the details of his detention.   Wiseman then swiftly cuts to a school authority walking down a hallway making sure that students are where they are supposed to be. Throughout the entirety of this successive sequence, the authority figure remains faceless, stalking the halls and students within them ever so aggressively. The transition from Mr. Allen and Michael’s dispute to this man’s disciplinary tactics is meaningful insofar as it shows two different kinds of power relationships within the same structure (teacher-student) and institution (the school).

The scene between Mr. Allen and Michael is just one in which Wiseman complicates the idea of his filmmaking being that of the cinéma vérité variety, pushing against the notion that there is anything but subjective cinema, even when it defines itself as documentary. He does this by using short, syncopated takes that emphasize certain aspects of a person or a setting and thus displaces common conceptions of power and power relations (Wiseman is in step with the intellectual leanings of Michel Foucault on this subject it seems). Mr. Allen could be seen as stepping in for society at large, in a way, teaching Michael the importance of compromising and its relation to the way we are seen as adults (rather than children, or students). Wiseman’s focus on Mr. Allen’s ring points to the possibility of a generationally-focused interpretation, one that relies on a certain passing down of ideas on character and specific values one should have. This student’s protest lays the foundation for what’s to follow, which Wiseman wisely builds on, the camera gazing over and into both interested and disinterested young faces, and across institutional landscapes and the people that run them.

About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s Degree in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop Films Summer Series.

Interview with Directors, Divya Cowasji and Shilpi Gulati, on their new documentary: “Qissa-e Parsi: The Parsi Story”

Film Syrup Founder, Colleen Rowe, interviewed directors, Shilpi Gulati and Divya Cowasji (currently based in India) on their documentary film project: Qissa-e Parsi: The Parsi Story. This film “is an attempt to understand a community which has always been numerically small, yet culturally and socially formidable.” Produced by: Public Service Broadcasting Trust & Ministry of External Affairs.

 

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1. Film Syrup: What attracted you to this particular community? Do you have a specific tie to the Parsi culture?

Divya: When I first moved to Mumbai from Delhi in 2008, I felt an inexplicable sense that I was coming home. I not only belong to the Parsi community, but have been in love with the idea of being a Parsi all my life. My research on the community at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai) during my Masters dissertation led me to a nuanced understanding of our history and an admiration for the formidable feat of holding our own as a minority community and yet influencing the world around us in nothing short of a significant manner. As the community is plagued with anxieties over its dwindling numbers, it is important to focus on all that is good and admirable, and to note that the community has always been numerically small, yet culturally and socially formidable.

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2. Film Syrup: Do you think you took a subjective stance as the creator of this film or did you remain wholly objective to the content presented in it?

Shilpi: A documentary film can never be objective. The very process of a documentary production, which involves research, scripting and editing, makes it a subjective process for there is always an argument that the filmmakers are trying to construct for the audiences. The narrative flow of Qissa-e Parsi historically locates the Parsi community in India, delves into basic ideals of the Zoroastrian faith and tries to understand their relationship with the British and with the city of Mumbai. Additionally, we also look at contemporary debates gripping the community, especially regarding issues of women and inter-faith marriages. We have made these choices, keeping in mind that this is the first film in our larger project of documenting the community. At every critical juncture of the production process, both of us made sure that we brought in our respective subject positions into our work. In such a scenario having two directors, a Parsi and a non-Parsi, therefore proved to be rather helpful.

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3. Film Syrup: How is the history (between the 8th and 10th century) of the Parsis relevant to the community that lives in Gujarat, India today?

Divya: When the Parsis arrived at the shores of Gujarat between the 8th and the 10th Century (the exact time of arrival is widely disputed), they did not land here by accident or mere chance. Having previously fostered trade relations with India, they knew they would be coming to a friendly people, who would understand their plight and help them in whatever way possible. According to the Qissa-e Sanjan, which is the first written account of the Parsi arrival and settlement in India, the local King Jadhav Rana asked them for an explanation of their religion and customs. He granted their request for asylum and freedom to carry on their religious practices as they saw fit, provided they adopt the local language of Gujarati; that their women adopt the local dress or sari; and that they henceforth cease to bear arms. Having accepted these conditions, the Parsis formed a settlement at Sanjan and subsequently spread around several parts of Gujarat, incorporating local customs and ways of life that bear their mark on Parsi identity until today. It is only centuries later, with the advent of the British in India, that the Parsis ventured beyond Gujarat to cities like Bombay and Calcutta. Several still remain in the state that gave them much needed asylum all those centuries ago.

Shilpi and Divya

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4. Film Syrup: How is Mumbai different from the areas that surround it? Why is it particularly intriguing?

Divya: In tracing the rich history and lives of the Parsis in India, one must inevitably end up in the city of Mumbai. This influential, albeit small community, has helped shape the city of Mumbai, or more appropriately erstwhile Bombay,  into the metropolis it is today, and in turn the city itself has come to leave its mark on the Parsi identity, with over two-thirds of the world’s Parsi population calling this place home. One has only to walk down the streets of South Bombay to encounter the everlasting impression of the Parsis on the history and ethos of the place, be it architecturally, in the numerous statues that unassumingly dot the leafy lanes, in centres of cultural significance, in quaint Irani eateries, in schools, museums, hospitals, charities, and the endearing eccentric bawas (an affectionate colloquialism for Parsis) who run these establishments or offer their faithful patronage.

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5. Film Syrup: Are you/did you film from a feminist viewpoint when reviewing the issues of inter-faith marriage? If not, what was your viewpoint?

ShilpiThe community today is faced with the stark reality of its dwindling numbers and the near and very real possibility of extinction. This has given rise to anxieties over issues of conversion, intermarriage, and purity of race; the burden of which seems to be falling increasingly on the Parsi woman. In what seems a strange confluence of religion, race, law and custom, the Parsis have constructed for themselves an extremely exclusive identity, where any form of plurality appears non-negotiable. According to us, the implications of justifying the discrimination faced by women in the 21st century on the grounds that something has been a certain way for centuries and should therefore unabashedly continue to be so, will prove to be extremely detrimental for the community. We see this as a concern not just for the Parsis but for women in other Indian communities as well. So far we have dedicated a section of our film examining this debate and hope to explore it more extensively in future.

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Film Syrup: Do you think this culture/community will die out if their numbers continue to decrease?

Divya: It is estimated that under 70,000 Parsis remain in India today, and the threat of extinction seems to be a very real possibility for the community. However, it is worth noting that the worldwide Parsi population, at its peak, has never exceeded 1,50,000. We have always been a numerically small people, capable of great things. The situation today is however accelerated by increasing incidences of inter-marriage, late marriage, not marrying at all, decline in fertility and rampant emigration, to name a few. But I believe that if the community puts their heads together, and allows the panic to bring us closer together instead of tearing us further apart, this too we can overcome, as have so many things in our past.

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 All photos that are included in this interview posting have been provided by Shilpi Gulati and Divya Cowasji.

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