In 1983, Deborah Peagler, a woman brutally abused by her boyfriend, was sentenced to 25 years-to-life for her connection to his murder. Twenty years later, as she languished in prison, a California law allowing incarcerated domestic-violence survivors to reopen their cases was passed. Enter a pair of rookie land-use attorneys convinced that with the incontrovertible evidence that existed, they could free Deborah in a matter of months. What they didn’t know was the depth of corruption and politically driven resistance they’d encounter, sending them down a nightmarish, bureaucratic rabbit hole of injustice.
The outrageous twists and turns in this consummately crafted saga are enough to keep us on the edge of our seats. Meanwhile, the spirit, fortitude, and love all three characters marshal in the face of this wrenching marathon is nothing short of miraculous. We fall in love with the remarkable triumvirate as they battle a warped criminal-justice system and test whether it’s beyond repair. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
“Crime After Crime”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director/Producer/Editor: Yoav Potash
Cinematographers: Ben Ferrer, Yoav Potash
Assistant Editor: Frank Giraffe
Music: Jaymee Carpenter
Consulting Producer: Gail Dolgin
Responses courtesy of “Crime After Crime” director Yoav Potash
An artist of many talents comes to film…
I love storytelling, music, writing, photography. As a kid I toyed around with all of these art forms, as well as a few others, and I felt like I could never decide to do just one of them and leave all the others alone. So I chose to pursue filmmaking because it was the one art form that seemed to offer a chance for one to dabble in so many art disciplines at once. I was also attracted to the idea of reaching many people, and films certainly have the potential to do that in a strong and long-lasting manner.
On realizing that Deborah Peagler was an “unsung hero,” deserving of a feature-length film…
Joshua Safran is a friend of mine who also happens to be a lawyer, and at the end of 2002 he volunteered to join another attorney in an effort to free Deborah Peagler, an incarcerated survivor of domestic violence. Joshua would tell me about the case from time to time, and it wasn’t something that I leapt at right away and said “I’ve got to make that film.” The story seemed complex, and Deborah was not entirely innocent – she was connected to the murder of her abuser, so it wasn’t clear to me if an audience or a court would ever take her side. But finally, once I began to understand more about the extent of the abuse Deborah had endured and the current status of her case, I agreed to bring a camera to the prison and meet Deborah.
I went into the prison thinking that perhaps nothing would come of it. Six hours later, I walked out of the prison committed to making a feature film. Deborah impressed me as a strong woman and an unsung hero, or at least a hero whose praises were only “sung” inside the prison walls. At that point I thought that the project would only take about a year. None of us could have predicted the various twists and turns that Deborah’s case would take, causing all kinds of delays and eventually propelling it into major news headlines, several courts, and the hearts of thousands, myself included. Now it’s five and a half years later, and Deborah’s story has its final resolution. Without giving away the ending or any of the surprises along the way, I will simply say that it is a story that is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. To have the opportunity to premiere the completed film at Sundance is truly a dream come true, not only for me, but for Deborah Peagler as well.
Potash took his camera into every nook and cranny of the case…
There were two main concepts that I kept in mind while making this film. The first was that I wanted to capture as much of the action unfolding as possible. I made every effort to be present with a camera rolling during all the important moments of this story. We’re there in a cramped concrete cell when Deborah’s attorneys deliver both uplifting and devastating developments in her case. We’re with the attorneys in their personal struggles to keep slogging on, despite the various setbacks they encounter along the way.
This leads to the second main aspect of my approach: the lawyers are characters too. I felt that in most legal documentaries that I had seen, the lawyers tended to be flat characters who only acted as vehicles for the story of their client. I discovered pretty quickly that both of the attorneys who I was following had interesting and complex relationships to their work on Deborah Peagler’s behalf, and I sought to include their personalities and struggles in the film to compliment and play off of Deborah’s saga. It makes for a more multi-faceted film, and also allows the story to take place both inside and outside of the prison walls.
The troubles of gaining access to an incarcerated subject…
The California Department of Corrections has a policy against allowing the media to interview specific inmates, a policy which I feel flies in the face of the First Amendment to the Constitution. But regardless of what I felt about their restrictions on freedom of the press, the Department of Corrections held the keys, and I had to work with them in whatever way I could. To film interviews with Deborah, I worked with her legal team as the official legal videographer, and indeed, over time this footage did play a role in Deborah’s legal strategy. To film b-roll of Deborah and of life in the prison in general, I produced an entirely separate documentary project about the prison’s work and rehabilitation programs, which prison officials were happy to permit access to. As it happened, Deborah Peagler led the gospel choir, worked in an electronics manufacturing plant, taught other inmates to read and write, and obtained a college education behind bars. So while we were able to film her, obtaining and maintaining access was a constant challenge. At any moment a guard could come in and tell me to get the hell out, and that would be the end of filming Deborah and the prison itself. Because of that, I felt a lot of pressure during every visit behind bars, and every time I said goodbye to Deborah, I could not be certain if I would be back.
“An open secret” on the set…
There were times when prison officials started to question why we always seemed to end up filming Deborah Peagler when there were about 4,000 other inmates at this, the largest women’s prison in the United States (the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, CA.) At one point a Lieutenant who was acting as the prison’s Public Information Officer told us we had to “stop filming Peagler.” The Lieutenant said he was afraid he could lose his job if we made a documentary on her story when it was his job to enforce the Department of Corrections “lack of specificity” media guideline. Fortunately, I think our focus on Deborah became an open secret with at least some inmates and prison staff, and we also had some champions who did what they could to assist our access, so long as they had some plausible deniability. This process continued for years, and I saw several Public Information Officers come and go, and as far as I know, no one’s job was ever truly at risk because of what we filmed.
Potash’s documentary inspiration…
Two of my favorite documentaries are “Murder on a Sunday Morning” and “On the Ropes,” both of which capture the sagas of underdogs as they unfold in unpredictable ways. To say it simply, these films have tremendous heart, and that’s a quality that I sought to bring to “Crime After Crime.”
Where to go after spending five and a half years documenting the unfolding of a story?
For one, there is a real possibility of adapting Deborah Peagler’s story into a true-life dramatic film – I think of it as “Erin Brokovich” meets “Precious.” Perhaps we’ll see if that pitch gets anywhere in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, one thing I have learned from this project is that there are amazing untold stories out there, and I would love the opportunity to discover and tell more of them. I don’t know if I am ready for another five and a half year commitment right now, but I would certainly jump at the chance to work on projects that are long enough to be substantial, but short enough where my next premiere or broadcast doesn’t have to wait until 2017. For example, I would love to work on a show like “60 Minutes” that regularly delivers great factual stories. Just to be clear, they haven’t called me yet or anything, but hey, you have to have a dream in order to have a dream come true.