2014 Sundance Docs in Focus: HAPPY VALLEY

happy valleySundance alum Amir Bar-Lev brings the story of the Penn State scandal to Documentary Premieres with HAPPY VALLEY.



Sundance Program Description:

The town of State College, the home of Penn State University, has long been known as Happy Valley, and its iconic figure for more than 40 years was Joe Paterno, the head coach of the school’s storied football team. His program was lauded for not only its success on the field but also its students’ achievements in the classroom. And Paterno took on mythic national stature as “Saint Joe.”

But then, in November 2011, everything came crashing down. Longtime Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with 40 counts of child sex abuse, setting off a firestorm of accusations about who failed to protect the children of Happy Valley. Was Sandusky’s abuse an “open secret” in the town? Did Coach Paterno and the Penn State administration value their football program more than the lives of Sandusky’s victims?

Filmed over the course of the year after Sandusky’s arrest as key players in the scandal agreed to share their stories, HAPPY VALLEY deconstructs the story we think we know to uncover a much more complicated and tragic tale. Director Amir Bar-Lev creates a parable of guilt, redemption, and identity crisis for a small town caught in the glare of the national spotlight.

Some Background:
Bar-Lev has had a long association with Sundance, receiving Institute support for his directorial debut, FIGHTER, premiering his films THE TILLMAN STORY (2010) and MY KID COULD PAINT THAT (2007) at the festival, and also serving as co-producer on TROUBLE THE WATER (2008, grand jury prize winner, Oscar nominee). Producers for the project are Passion Pictures’ John Battsek, who produced TILLMAN and MY KID, among several other Sundance alums, who is also in Park City as producer of fellow 2014 entries CAPTIVATED: THE TRIALS OF PAMELA SMART, THE GREEN PRINCE and WE ARE THE GIANT; Asylum Entertainment’s Jonathan Koch, who was a camp counselor for Sandusky’s nonprofit The Second Mile, and Steve Michaels, son of sportscaster Al Michaels; and Frontline’s Ken Dornstein. Bar-Lev once again works with A&E IndieFilms, whose Bob DeBitetto, David McKillop, and Molly Thompson serves as executive producers, and whose combined past Sundance credits include UNDER AFRICAN SKIES (2012), THE IMPOSTER (2012), MAGIC TRIP (2011), CORMAN’S WORLD (2011), TILLMAN, THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE (2009), AMERICAN TEEN (2008). The film’s editor, Dan Swietlik, edited fellow 2014 Sundance title FED UP as well as AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006, Oscar winner); while additional editor David Zieff also worked on alums WINNING TIME: REGGIE MILLER VS THE NEW YORK KNICKS (2010), CRAZY LOVE (2007), METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (2004), and MY FATHER’S GARDEN (1996). Both of the film’s cinematographers have also had work in Park City before: Sean Kirby previously shot TILLMAN, AGAINST THE CURRENT (2009), ZOO (2007), and POLICE BEAT (2005); while Nelson Hume shot MY KID and THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET (2006).

Why You Should Watch:
With impressive access to figures directly affected by the story, and, perhaps just as importantly, community residents reeling from the accusations, Bar-Lev handles an exceedingly difficult, tricky subject with deftness. Like in his investigation of the story behind the death and public valorization of Pat Tillman, the director challenges viewers to question the truth they believe they know to seek out thornier, more complex answers about hero worship, the court of public opinion, and their impact on everyday people caught in their wake.

More Info:
As they become available, I’ll link to the film’s website and to Bar-Lev’s Meet the Artist Sundance video profile and Indiewire filmmaker interview. For screening dates and times at Sundance, click the link in the first paragraph.

To experience the festival through the eyes of this year’s filmmakers, follow my Sundance filmmaker class of 2014 Twitter list.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Recommendations, Sundance

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