Avoiding black holes. Amir Bar-Lev used that term when describing his approach to interviewing a victim of child sexual abuse, and it was a strikingly original way to describe how he wanted to be honest, but not salacious when it came to dealing with the charges against Jerry Sandusky in his documentary, HAPPY VALLEY. What I liked best about his film, though, was that, while it deal with that issue, it was really about the way we all fall into the trap of hero worship, and how we react to fallen heroes says as much about us as it does about the hero in question.Amir Bar-Lev is a filmmaker fascinated with public perceptions, and so the repercussions of the Jerry Sandusky pedophile scandal at Penn State was a story he was compelled to tell.
HAPPY VALLEY is a documentary about hero worship, moral versus legal responsibility, and the culture of reverence around Penn State football. It tells the story of what happened when secular saint Joe Paterno, long-time head coach of the Penn State football team is caught up in the scandal of his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation arrest and trial. What Paterno did or didn’t do about Sandusky’s behavior and when becomes a polarizing issue for the Penn State faithful, calls into question our need for heroes, and examines the consequences for those who fall victim to the hype. Bar-Lev’s previous work includes MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, about a putative painting prodigy, and THE TILLMAN STORY about the circumstances surrounding the death in combat of a football star who chose to enlist after 9/11, but not share his reasons why, and which the San Francisco Film Critics Circle voted best documentary of the year.
When we spoke on December 1, 2014, it was only natural that my first question would be about what it is about us human beings that need to create heroes, and why we are also so willing to tear them down. His answer is as insightful and thoughtful as the film itself, before moving on to specific questions about how he persuaded so many people involved in the scandal to talk to him, and to talk with him so openly. We finished up by discussing the subtle but powerful use of music in the film, which, in turn, led to a preview of Bar-Lev’s next film about The Grateful Dead.