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Monday, November 24, 2014

Mysteries Of Penn State: Q& A with "Happy Valley" Director Amir Bar-Lev

Posted By on Mon, Nov 24, 2014 at 2:38 PM

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The Penn State child-abuse scandal shook the country in a way that can be hard to articulate. The unpleasant cocktail of doubt, anger, sympathy, and indignation was tough for most of us to swallow, but most of us only heard about it through the nightly news coverage and uncomfortably dour sports-radio briefings.

Happy Valley, a documentary by acclaimed doc-director Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story, My Kid Could Paint That), puts us right in the middle of its titular Pensylvania township, as fallout from the scandal begins to rain down on the residents and students who share a strong personal connection to the school, the town, and the major players in the story, including Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno. The film is a balanced and engaging doc, full of sympathy and emotion, yet determined to provide context to every statement and action.

We caught up with Bar-Lev before the film's San Francisco premiere, to find out how his opinions on interviews, Joe Paterno, and the psychological theater that is college football.

How long after the news of the scandal broke did you arrive in State College?

I didn't arrive until March 2012. The scandal broke four months earlier, in November of 2011, but I was watching the scandal break on the news from New York, and found the story instantly compelling. I watched the riot that happened after Joe Paterno was fired, and was intrigued. Somebody joked that it was the first riot they could remember in favor of authority. It got me thinking that there could be a story here.

So you immediately recognized the potential in the scandal for a documentary?

Yeah, yeah. I'm interested in mysteries, it's fertile ground for storytelling, and it's very hard to ind a non-fiction mystery. It's much easier to concoct a mystery, with the tools of the fiction trade. But in the the few times that I've recognized a mystery in a news story, I've immediately thought to myself "This could be a great documentary." 

Joe Paterno is certainly a mysterious figure. He's at once the exemplar of 51-years of looking out for the welfare of your people, and someone who appears to look the other way, or do the bare miniumum when he was aware that young people were in danger, towards the end of his life. There are people who don't see Joe Paterno as a mystery, they see him either as a phony, or completely without fault. But I think that he's something in the middle, something more mysterious.

Your films have covered a wide variety of topics, from holocaust survivors to modern art prodigies. Is there a connecting theme through all these topics?

Let's see... that's a tough one. I studied religion in college, and I became interested in the way that human being find meaning in the world, and project meaning. And if there is common theme in those films, its people projecting their hopes and needs on reality, and the tension, when reality doesn't fit.

What originally drew you to make documentary films?

My interest in documentaries is probably not that different than fiction filmmakers. Just, you know, basic, classical storylines excite me. Drama, satire, all the building blocks of narrative filmmaking.

I'm not particularly interested in headlines, or investigative work. There are documentaries out there that do a better job of investigation than, say, hard news, but that's not the kind of documentaries I'm making, I'm trying to take these news stories that seem to touch some kind of a cultural nerve, and reexamine them, maybe through an anthropological, artistic lens. Not dig deeper, like something CNN might do.

Although in your film you interview plenty of people, and they lots of differing opinions, the film itself never really chooses a side to support, like in a concrete-

Is that true though? Because I'm not sure that I agree.

Oh?

I think that the film completely has a point of view, and completely has a perspective. The fact that you don't notice it's perspective means that our style of filmmaking has worked the way we wanted it to work. The film has a perspective, and hopefully you arrive at the same perspective, but you got there on your own two feet, not because we dragged you there.

How did you shoot the games at Beaver Stadium, particularly the first game of the season? Was there any specific technique you used?

We shot that fist game with six cameras, some were handheld, some were on sticks (on tripods), and they were in a variety of locations, from the rooftop above the press box, all the way dow to the field. They were also [shooting at] a variety of speeds, so some were shooting real time, and a few were shooting slow motion. We always knew, with that scene, we weren't trying to film the football action in the same way that live sports would cover it, but rather to get underneath the surface, and tease out the psychological theater at work, the pageantry. 

One of my cinematographers, Sean Kirby, is a painter, and he has a pretty interesting way of framing shots. He filmed the pageantry, at the beginning in a such a way that, to my eyes, that the cheerleaders and the marching band seem to be saying "Sex! War! Sex! War!" That's what really going on, right? It's a psychological theater, and my cameraman caught that very nicely.

As a documentary filmmaker, you're obviously doing a lot of interviews with people you've never met, often in a short period of time. How do you create a relationship with someone in such a short period of time that allows them to feel comfortable with you broadcasting their personal lives and opinions?

Well, it's not a short period of time, really. It usually takes us about half a year to get to know people and convince them that we're worth speaking with. So you're just seeing the last chapter in a long conversation, and that conversation naturally involves them watching our films, and asking us questions about where we see our film going. But ultimately, because we like to make these films improvisational, and we don't have an agenda going in, you're asking people to take a journey with you, and trust that you'll be good company.

Happy Valley opens December 5 in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater. Check out the trailer below:

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David L. Garcia

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