In third grade, Yoav Potash discovered that he liked writing, telling and illustrating stories, and the other kids enjoyed the performances too, especially his series “The Three Cool Mice.” Now 38, Potash will undoubtedly attract and dismay wider audiences when his documentary film Crime After Crime, a devastating examination of critical problems in the American criminal justice system, opens in Bay Area theaters August 5 and is aired on national television in November.
His exploration of those serious faults in the system is told through the remarkable story of Deborah Peagler, one indomitable African American who was imprisoned for more than 26 years, charged with the murder of Oliver Wilson, a drug user, clothes modeler and abuser who was the father of her daughter. Potash learned about Peagler’s case through an old friend, Joshua Safran, a lawyer who told him he was taking the case pro bono as the result of a new California law. It stipulated that if domestic violence was part of the circumstance in a prosecution and there had not been a previous opportunity to show that evidence, it was now possible to petition the court for a reduced sentence, possibly for freedom, by presenting testimony to that abuse.
“Joshua was representing Deborah and he invited me to think about making a documentary about her,” Potash said, “and I agreed to meet her on an exploratory basis only. Once I met her I knew I would make the film because she really impressed me. I understood from her story that she had been through hell, that she had been horribly abused, forced into prostitution, denied justice by our courts and all the systems, including parole boards and prison and despite all that, she was very uplifting. It was inspiring to be in her company. I knew she led the gospel choir in prison, taught illiterate prisoners to read and write, counseled other inmates to kick their drug habits and earned two college degrees herself while behind bars. She obviously made the most of her life doing everything and continued to be a very optimistic person despite harrowing circumstances that would drive many people to suicide. She was living above those circumstances.”
She would define her religion as Christianity, noted Potash, the son of an Israeli father and American Jewish mother who met at UCLA. “But the way I looked at it, Deborah's religion was more Positivity. Yes. Because in any situation, she would try to make even the worse circumstances benefit someone, maybe not herself. For example, if she would go before the parole board and they would deny her and it would mean two or three years before she even had a chance to go again and could re-unite with her children. She would let herself be saddened for maybe a day or two. Then she would emerge from that and say, ‘Maybe God wants me here so I can teach other inmates to read and write and do more here to help some of those women who need the help. Let me try to find that positive outcome even though things look so bleak. She'd take that negative circumstance and find there has to be a reason for it.”
Potash, who grew up in San Diego, graduated from UC Berkeley. After graduation, he made his first documentary, which was about the re-building of black churches in the south by a multi-cultural group from Berkeley coming together out of a sense of social justice.
“I had a typical Jewish American experience and was guilt-tripped by my father into having a bar-mitzvah. Unfortunately he felt I was not doing enough preparation for it and he'd beat the crap out of me if he needed to do it. It was a Jewish upbringing without maybe a lot of religion. We observed the major holidays and at the same time, ate sausages and bacon and a fair amount of things that a lot of Jews would avoid. We were culturally religious, and, for most of the Jews in America, that includes a fair amount of religious practices but not all of them. Eventually I came to Judaism on my own terms other than the one that was sort of beaten into me.”
He and his wife Shira are now living in New Mexico, but plan to return to the Bay Area in August. They worked together on an earlier documentary, Food Stamped. They were trying to determine if it was possible to be healthy on a food stamp budget. “We lived it, tried it, did things like dumpster diving for day old bread, and interviewed Democratic congress representatives who took the ‘food stampe’ challenge,” he said. “It's a fun film,” he noted happily. “It's informative about food policy in America. And at the same time, it's more light-hearted and enjoyable than many of the food documentaries that are around now.”
In terms of his career, Crime After Crime has opened a lot of doors. Although it's his first full-length feature, it was shown at the Sundance festival, has won three audience awards (one at the San Francisco International Film Festival) and a half-dozen jury awards in this country and abroad In addition, it won a $25,OOO prize for an investigative documentary and a $3,000 prize in Washington, D,C.—but those don't begin to cover the cost of making the $300,000 documentary.
“That's dirt cheap,” he noted, considering that he worked on it for five and a half years. He is now cutting a shorter version and hopes that more money will come his way when the film is shown the first Thursday in November on the Oprah Winfrey Network. It later will be distributed on her new OWN Documentary Club. If it's as successful as her book club, it will be the first time Potash's work will be easily available.
What does he hope to gain with the national exposure? “I hope the audience will understand there are problems at the intersection of domestic violence and criminal justice law enforcement in this country,” he said. “There needs to be continued reforms and advocacy to try to make sure that victims of domestic violence are not re-victimized and sent to prison unnecessarily, or charged with crimes unnecessarily, and that they have a chance to fairly present evidence that relates to how they have been abused and how, if they are already in prison that our courts really need to adapt and evolve in order to do that.” Explained Potash, “Today our courts are still looking at many of these situations from an old world, male-based point of view. For instance, if a man comes home and finds his wife in bed with another man, he kills them both and he can argue in court that it was a crime of passion, that it was simply an uncontrollable reaction to the fact that his woman was cheating on him and that man might not even go to jail. On the other hand, that same man can beat his wife every day for years and can threaten to kill her if she tries to get away, but if she fights back against him after years of abuse, there's not much of an argument that she can make that this is a crime she shouldn't be prosecuted for.”
Said Potash, “The system is still skewed, still unfair to the typical situation that women encounter in domestic violence. I hope the film helps wake people up to that and helps them want to make changes. We're trying to have the film shown in every law school in the country so lawyers of tomorrow don't fall into the same old patterns.”
When Deborah saw a rough cut of Potash's film, she said, "If I had seen this film when I was 15 years old, maybe none of this would have happened to me."
She realized, Potash said, “that the film could help other young girls recognize the warning flags of abusive relationships and turn away before they become violent or deadly."
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