Hot Docs 2014: Happy Valley – Documentary Review

Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Country: USA
Runtime: 98 minutes
Rating: 14A

Documentaries often provide chilling stories that overshadow even the most intricate and terrifying horror films. There is nothing quite as alarming as reality, and Happy Valley is one of those films that documents a phenomenon most believe to be completely harmless, but in reality it is full of complicated and harmful modus operandi that when brought into a public light cause a stir even in those most fateful to it. Important contemporary documentary filmmaker Amir-Bar Lev returns to the screen with a story of fanatics, enablers, and above all, negligence.

Happy Valley

In 2011 Penn State University assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with numerous counts of sexual abuse of minors. The news created quite a stir amongst the students and citizens of the town of State College, who had regarded Jerry as a hero not only due to his work as an assistant coach of their revered football team, but as founder of a non-profit charity built to protect youth. Ashamed of the fact that one of their most esteemed figures was now being charged for these horrible crimes, the town took another low blow when Penn State head coach Joe Paterno was accused of knowing of Sandusky’s deviances, but did little to prevent it from happening again. The accusations completely transformed the dynamic of a town that up until recently, had lived only for football, and had regarded these men as Gods. The documentary is an account of the way the situation was handled not only by authorities, but by the families and friends of these two men, and how there is an immense culture of negligence and double standards surrounding sports.

Despite Sandusky’s trial being at the centre of this documentary, there are numerous other important issues discussed in it, which make it a multi faceted and valuable experience that is capable of initiating analysis and discussion in multiple fields. Happy Valley sheds light on the very present and often ignored fanaticism in football and sports culture in America. In State College it had become a cult like activity, with people regarding its coaches and athletes as super human, and incapable of disappointing them and their university. There are also issues of the efficiency of the legal system, and all the sanctions they placed on the university after Sandusky was convicted, which instead of turning the situation into an opportunity of change in sports culture across the country, merely demonized Penn State, and placed on it pointless sanctions that erased its history, in an attempt to conceal Paterno’s legacy.

Happy Valley

Numerous interviews with people that experienced the events first hand compose the sources of information in the documentary, and they give the piece credibility, but also firsthand insight into the mentalities and beliefs of many of these individuals. Being able to see their views on the subject can be rewarding, but at times also horrifying, since a culture of negligence is truly living within their words and actions. Although they may give the viewer a bad feeling, the interviews and accounts provide the documentary with enough information to cause reflection amongst them, although it is hard to wrap one’s head around the words and actions of many of these witnesses.

Happy Valley is a more traditional documentary in the sense that it relies on interviews and documents to present its story. Although the viewer can make assumptions and draw their own conclusions, the documentary provides with the available facts and allegations of people that lived this horrible time first hand. It presents an unpleasant side of a culture that few dare criticize, and it shows a darker side of the human condition. Not only is it entertaining, it is also eye-opening, and many times it is quite simply scary.