My guest today is Yoav Potash, producer and director of the 2011 award-winning documentary, Crime After Crime. Welcome to OpEdNews, Yoav.
JB: Your film documents the legal fight to free Deborah Peagler from federal prison. Fill us in a bit about the story and why you found it compelling.
YP: What hooked me on making Crime After Crime was really Deborah Peagler herself, the protagonist of the film. When you are documentary filmmaker, people, friends or just anyone you meet will tell you, "Oh, you should make a film about fill in the blank." That's just what happens to you. So, in this case, Joshua Safran was a friend of mine, and he was representing Deborah as one of her lawyers, and he suggested I might want to take a look at her story and possibly make a documentary. At first, I just wasn't so sure that was something I wanted to do, but when I heard enough of her story, I thought sure, maybe there's something here, let me try to meet her.
Once we arranged for me to go into the prison with a camera - honestly for me, it was almost like a screen test or an experiment - but when I left the prison that day, I absolutely knew that I was making a film, because I was so moved by the fact that not only she had she been through a really harrowing experience, first as a victim of abuse who was forced into prostitution, and then later sentenced to life in prison, but that despite everything she suffered, she was a really uplifting, optimistic person. She was leading the prison choir, she had just earned a college degree behind bars, and was working towards a second degree at the time. I just felt like wow, if she's been through all that, and that is who she is today, it certainly attracted me, and I thought it would attract audiences to a story that otherwise - without someone who has such infectious optimism - it would be a story that would be perhaps hard to tell, perhaps hard to watch. I think that Debbie, on the other hand, makes it a kind of joy to root for her.
JB: All true. As the case dragged on for years, did you ever feel that you had bitten off more than you could chew?
YP: No, but I think that Debbie's lawyers probably did feel that way. For me, on the other hand, I had a story to tell whether they succeeded or failed in getting her out of prison. While it took a large commitment for me to follow this story for as many years as I did, I never had a second thought or a doubt about it. When I consider a project, I really do try to look in my heart, and feel if I have the passion for it, because there have been times I started a project and then dropped it, and other times I started a project and have seen it all the way through.
Looking back, I can say, "Ah, the times when I had that passion from day one, I completed the film and it did well. And the times when I pursued something because I felt I needed to pursue something, and my passion wasn't that strong, sure enough somewhere along the way, things got difficult and it wasn't fueling me, and therefore, it was shelved or never fully came to life." So I try to encourage people to find something that they are passionate about because that is what is going to get you to stick with it when you are denied access at some point, or when someone gives you feedback that is going to be hard to hear, or when you need to get up at three in the morning to drive to a prison to go and film that one shot you really want. So in this case, while I had a lot to "chew," I was always thrilled to have such a powerful story on the tip of my tongue.
JB: Passion is good. Filming inside a prison must have been challenging. How did you manage to get what you needed?
YP: The California Department of Corrections has an unfortunate rule prohibiting inmates from being interviewed by members of the press. In my view, it's an unconstitutional rule that places unfair limits of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but the Department of Corrections doesn't care about my view. To interview Debbie, I joined Debbie's legal team as her official legal videographer, thereby removing my "member of the press" hat and removing myself from being subject to that rule I've just mentioned. I also put that press hat back on and asked the Department of Corrections if they would let me and my film crew come into the prison to film many of their wonderful rehabilitation programs, which it just so happened Debbie was a major part of. This is how I was able to film Debbie graduating with a college degree while behind bars, leading the prison's gospel choir, and so forth.
Nonetheless, access was the most difficult part about making this documentary. If the prison officials would have let me, I would have liked to have spent much more time filming Debbie and the other women inside that prison. But even as it was, some of the officers at the prison became suspicious about how much we filmed Debbie, and they sometimes specifically barked at us to "stop filming Peagler," and they never allowed us to film in the cramped living quarters or in many other areas of the prison that they don't want the outside world to know about. But in my view, the taxpayer is paying for every square inch of that prison, for every inmate who is there, and for everything that goes on behind those walls, so we have a right to see the manner in which our taxpayer dollars are being spent.
JB: I totally agree with your last statement. Your interest in our prison system didn't start or end with this film. Tell me more about what you're doing now beyond Crime After Crime.
YP: There are two main ways I'm continuing to expand on the public's interest in Debbie's story as told in Crime After Crime. On the one hand, I am working to adapt Crime After Crime into a dramatic major motion picture, with actors playing these real-life people and hopefully reaching many more people with this story. On the other hand, I initiated an advocacy campaign, now called Free From Abuse, that strives to use Crime After Crime as a tool for audience engagement and reform in the area of domestic violence law.
The dramatic adaptation is something that occurred to me even as I was making the documentary, before I knew whether or not Debbie would ever live to see a day of freedom again. I felt that Debbie, her attorneys Joshua and Nadia, and Bobby, the private investigator who worked on the case, were all such interesting and memorable characters, and what they were trying to do was really an uphill battle. I believed all of that would work really well dramatically. In fact, when the documentary came out, a number of reviewers also remarked that this story seemed ripe for a Hollywood drama. So, I have been writing and revising the screenplay for quite some time, and I'm happy to say that the script is now a semifinalist in the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition, which had over 3,000 screenplays in the drama category and only 27 semifinalists. And there are some other significant opportunities developing with the project right now which I hope to be able to announce soon. People who want to stay abreast of this project should check my Facebook page , twitter feed , or join my email list .
Meanwhile, Free From Abuse is going strong. We've used screenings of Crime After Crime to help raise a couple hundred thousand dollars benefiting domestic violence shelters, and we've shown Crime After Crime to groups of people who have the most influence over the future of domestic violence law and wrongful incarceration. This means showing the film in partnership with legislators who have sponsored new bills on this issue, which we've done in New York and New Jersey. It means showing the film to lawyers and law school students, which we've done at the National Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association, as well as at law schools and in partnerships with legal groups all over the country.