PARK CITY — Matt Sandusky, the adopted son of convicted pedophile and former football coach Jerry Sandusky, spoke in public for the first time about the saga and his own abuse at the premiere of Happy Valley, the new documentary from Amir Bar-Lev that screened Sunday at the MARC Theater during the Sundance Film Festival.
Jerry Sandusky is the former member of the Penn State coaching staff convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of molesting young boys. The film explores how the scandal split the community and the university, while also focusing on certain subjects, including the wife and sons of late head coach Joe Paterno.
Matt Sandusky, 34, is an emotional figure in the film, and he was there to support the filmmaker and act as a public face of the movie. He did, however, politely decline to answer certain questions. When one audience member at the post-screening Q&A asked if he thought his other siblings knew of the abuse, he said, “For me, at this point, I feel uncomfortable answering that in this setting.”
The younger Sandusky did say that the story of what happened in Happy Valley (the nickname for the Penn State area) has been told many times before, just not by him. He called being involved with the documentary “this opportunity to come forward and to explain myself, my role.”
Sandusky, who is married with kids, was able to participate in the film because he and others settled civil litigation against the university in August, making his lawyers more comfortable with him going public with his story. In the film, he reveals a troubled upbringing and how he became part of a children’s program run by Jerry Sandusky. That led to him being adopted by the Sandusky family and seeing the fame and opportunities afforded by being associated with Penn State football. During the sex-abuse trial, Matt Sandusky shocked many by agreeing to come forward and testify against his adopted father, who Matt says abused him repeatedly.
Bar-Lev, who last directed the acclaimed 2010 documentary The Tillman Story, offered his insights into the events, saying that the $60 million in fines and four-year college bowl game ban levied against Penn State by the NCAA in response to the scandal might not have been good.
“[The sanctions] changed the conversation,” he said. “Many people in town began seeing themselves as victims.” By being victims of the media or other institutions, Bar-Lev explained, townspeople didn’t have to ask themselves what their roles were in creating the culture that led to Sandusky’s crimes being covered up.
And according to the filmmaker, the NCAA doesn’t escape blame either: “You have to ask the NCAA, are the sanctions to protect survivors or themselves?”
The film also shows how the Penn State community grafted its football energy onto Paterno’s replacement coach, Bill O’Brien, a symptom of society’s need to move on and, perhaps too quickly, find a replacement hero.
“They treated the new coach more than just a new coach,” he said, calling O’Brien’s ascension a coronation. O’Brien has since left Penn State to coach the Houston Texans in the NFL.
Happy Valley was produced by Asylum Entertainment’s Jonathan Koch, John Battsek, Ken Dornstein and Steven Michaels, in conjunction with A&E IndieFilms.
Submarine is selling domestic distribution rights to the film at Sundance.