Anna Martemucci (Hollidaysburg) Talks Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley

This documentary about Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State sex abuse scandal prompts a thoughtful, brave and very personal take on the subject matter.

Here’s the thing about a bunch of little boys being raped by an old guy: it’s not very fun to think about. It’s kind of the last thing you ever, ever want to think about… ever. And that’s exactly why it’s so important — dire, even — that we do think about it.

Other things that are hard to think about:
– Bill Cosby serially drugging and raping women (the Internet is exploding on this topic as I write this)
– Woody Allen molesting his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow
– The possibility that Michael Jackson was a really entertaining, really talented, really just amazingly awesome pedophile.

It feels jarring to read the words above because we’ve all silently agreed we’re not supposed to use words like “amazing” or “awesome” to describe pedophiles. It’s hard to think about these things because, culturally, these people are our heroes. We chose to adore them years ago, and for good reason: they’ve given us so much. But if the above statements are ever proven to be true, do we have to return it all?

Amir Bar-Lev’s nuanced documentary Happy Valley explores this question by documenting the similarly difficult but more insulated case of Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State sex-abuse scandal. Bar-Lev tells a tale of hero worship that waves the wand of examination over Penn State’s once-deified football coach Joe Paterno, the Penn State administration, the intensity of college-football culture, the town of State College, PA, the media at large, and then squarely back over the viewer, by ending the film with beautifully mundane footage of Sandusky’s most high-profile victim, his adopted son Matt. Bar-Lev lets us sit with Matt in his basement for a long time. His children mill about. It feels so ordinary. The moment forces us to see him as more than a talking head in a documentary and as more than a victim of sexual abuse: he’s someone living a life, and we’re sitting with him in it, hoping for an easier next chapter.

Celebrity worship is weird. And we are living in its heyday. It’s easier to see the weirdness when the celebrity isn’t as unanimously and internationally beloved as the three I mentioned above; when it’s a niche celebrity like, say, a YouTube star, or a football coach like Paterno. When there exist both legions of rabid fans and legions who’ve never heard of the person, it’s easier to see the bizarre behavior and strange lifting of ethical obligation that tends to happen around celebrity worship, and that is what Bar-Lev showcases in Happy Valley. We are shown a microcosm of our current cultural state, and it’s unsettling.

The celebrity worship that has come to define our culture has never been more pronounced than it is right now, and concurrently, we seem to have a strangely puritanical need to deny the prominence of sexual abuse while also denying the humanity of sexual abusers. We deem them monsters and deem their acts unspeakable, even though they are happening all the time, all around us, and have been since the beginning of time. The statistics on sexual abuse are all the more alarming given the infrequency with which it is reported and/or prosecuted. This mixture of the highly visible and highly unspeakable aspects of our culture lately seems to swirl and collide into pointed moments of cultural confusion and outrage that pop off like firecrackers without any warning. You never know when which firecracker will go off. The Bill Cosby firecracker is going off right now. Last winter it was Woody Allen. The YouTube community had one a few months ago with Sam Pepper. The weirdness of the firecrackers is not that they go off, but that it’s never clear what causes one to detonate and another to lie dormant for years. The firecracker is often right there in plain view. Sometimes people are even pointing at it or taking a lighter to its fuse for years, but no one can ever tell whether one will explode into wider cultural relevancy or whether we will collectively just turn away and shrug.

It’s the discrepancy between the intensity of our celebrity worship and our communal denial of very stark realities (like the rampancy of sexual abuse and the humanity of the abusers) that causes this cultural insanity. How can we love Woody Allen movies and allow Dylan Farrow the truth of her memories? How can I feel such warmth towards Bill Cosby and believe these women’s allegations? If all of those people “were” Penn State Football, then who are they now?

Part of the confusion and madness lies in our cultural agreement around silence. I was sexually abused when I was a kid by my brother’s older friend. I was raped eight years ago. Neither of those things defines who I am as a person or a filmmaker, but I like to throw them out there because I have this theory that if everyone who ever experienced any kind of sexual abuse just said it casually, in an essay like this, or on their Facebook page or in conversation, then everyone would either be saying it, or would realize that they know and love someone who was saying it, and then the silence, darkness and shame surrounding sexual abuse would cease to exist. In a moment — poof! — it would vanish, and we would all be living in a different world entirely, a better world. The light would be let in. Matt Sandusky was brave enough to tell the truth — wouldn’t it be tremendous if we all could be?

I don’t believe people who sexually abuse other people are monsters, just human beings with a terrible problem, one that needs to be brought out into the light so that maybe we can prevent future generations from enduring as much silent, secret pain as we are currently enduring.

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood once said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” Joe Paterno was an excellent human being, a beacon of integrity who existed within a culture that allowed him to think that little boys getting raped just wasn’t mentionable, and what he couldn’t mention, he couldn’t manage. Bar-Lev’s documentary shows compassion for this, and with good reason. It’s a very human mistake. But one that, culturally, I think we’re ready to stop making.

Anna Martemucci‘s second feature film and her directorial debut, the critically acclaimed Hollidaysburg was released in September of 2014. Her filmmaking process was documented on the Starz docu-series The Chair. Martemucci’s first film, Breakup at a Wedding was released by Oscilloscope in 2013. Her third film, Periods, will be released by Oscilloscope this December 2nd. She was a resident of State College, PA from the ages of 8 to 20.