Q&A: Amir Bar-Lev on the Complicated Shame of ‘Happy Valley’

Happy Valley centers on the people of State College, Pennsylvania, and its conflicted reactions to the Penn State football scandal in the months following Jerry Sandusky’s arrest for child molestation. With interviews with those directly involved and die-hard fans alike, documentarian Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story, My Kid Could Paint That) captures the college town as it struggles to define itself in the wake of Sandusky’s crimes and the negligence allegations leveled against coach Joe Paterno, his staff, the college’s administration, and (according to some in the media) the town itself.


What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from Happy Valley?

Amir Bar-Lev: Like the films I’ve made before it, Happy Valley delivers questions, but asks its audience to provide their own answers.

Something bad clearly happened in Happy Valley. A serial child predator was loose for years—maybe decades. No one really disputes this. But this only became a big national story when the circle of responsibility was widened—first to include Joe Paterno, then to include the high officials at Penn State, then later the wider football “culture.”

The story touched a national nerve because all of us wonder about where to draw our own circles of responsibility. A central question of the film is who really failed the children of Happy Valley? Was it solely the perpetrator? A handful of people around him who’d at the very least heard rumors of his crimes?

For many outside of Happy Valley the circle was much wider; the town itself was implicated for its ‘culture of reverence for football.’ But is there a wider still circle of responsibility?

When the NCAA pillories Penn State for its football culture, one of our characters, Penn State film professor Matt Jordan, calls this a “shaming spectacle.” In his view, the NCAA is publically flogging the University for doing something they themselves feel culpable about. The shaming spectacle is a tourniquet, designed to isolate a once-connected limb and save the rest of the body. Is there something analogous happening when the people of Happy Valley cheer at Sandusky’s conviction? When they paint him out of their mural? When America concludes that there is something rotten in Happy Valley?


We are looking forward to having you in attendance at HIFF 2014. What are you most looking forward to at the Festival?

Amir Bar-Lev: I’ve had nearly every film I’ve ever made at the Hamptons Film Festival, so I’m already a fan. I’m bringing my three kids, and their grandparents too, so there won’t be any watching the sunrise from the beach with The Dude and others for Bar-Lev this go ‘round. Unless I’m up that early to change a diaper. And it’s The Dude’s that needs changing.

Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Amir Bar-Lev: Better they don’t aspire. There’s no room in here for them.

Happy Valley screens in the World Cinema program at HIFF 2014. Find tickets. 

Amir-Bar-LevAmir Bar-Levs directorial debut, Fighter, won awards at six international festivals. His following films include My Kid Could Paint That, Trouble The Water, (2009 Academy Award Nominee, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, winner of the Grand Jury Award at Full Frame, Special Jury Mention at Silverdocs, winner of the IFP Gotham Award for Best Documentary) and The Tillman Story. Bar-Lev has directed two music documentaries: The Re:Generation Music Project, and 12.12.12. He is currently beginning work on a documentary about The Grateful Dead.