In Yoav Potash’s first full-length feature documentary, “Crime After Crime,” the filmmaker went to great lengths to follow the epic legal battle to free Deborah Peagler. To gain access to the maximum-security prison in Chowchilla, California where Peagler was incarcerated, he used a two-pronged approach; first he embedded himself with Peagler’s pro-bono attorneys as her official legal videographer, and second, he made an entirely separate documentary about the rehabilitative programs at the prison – a project that acted as a sort of Trojan horse to surreptitiously transport Potash and his crew inside the prison gates.
The plan appears to have worked. “Crime After Crime” has earned numerous top festival awards and garnered some great notices following its world premiere at Sundance. Below, find an exclusive scene from the film and Potash’s thoughts on the process.
The sequence that I’ve chosen for indieWIRE shows how Deborah Peagler’s case began to transform — from a private legal brief quietly argued by her two attorneys — into a public battle waged on front page headlines, in TV news reports, and in the court of public opinion.
To provide some context, I’ve started this excerpt at the end of a previous scene, where attorney Joshua Safran stands at a whiteboard, laying out the legal strategy five years into the case. The shot is literally a “back to the drawing board” moment – half an hour earlier in the film (at the start of the film’s second act) we saw Joshua at this same whiteboard, outlining the uphill battle he envisioned for winning his client’s freedom when he began working on the case in 2002.
The whiteboard motif emerged from workshopping the film with test audiences. Throughout the five and a half years of making this film, we held work-in-progress screenings to help me determine which scenes were working, and to identify scenes where audiences weren’t connecting with what we had. (We also used these events as opportunities to fundraise for the film). In early cuts, the legal process confused some audience members, so I went back and asked Joshua to stand in front of a white board and diagram the strategy in plain English. We tested it out at our next rough cut screening and audiences really loved it, so coming back to the whiteboard for a reorientation when the case began to escalate was a natural extension of the motif.
We then insert a timeline graphic, another motif element of the film that is repeated as Debbie and her lawyers push through year after year of their saga. A news clip from Oakland’s KTVU Fox-2 News does a nice job of quickly contrasting the lawyers’ current efforts with their original concept of what they imagined would be an open-and-shut case, and once we cut to footage of an outdoor concert where Speech of Arrested Development is talking about Deborah’s plight to a crowd of thousands, it’s clear that her case is getting bigger than anyone ever imagined.
The series of shots that follows shows Arrested Development taking their interest in Deborah’s case several steps further, as they enter the prison to meet her and sing with her and the prison choir she’s directed for over 15 years. It was my idea to see if some musicians might take an interest in Deborah’s plight, and to their credit, Arrested Development went well out of their way to participate once I brought the idea to them through music producer Jamie Catto, who is, as the saying goes, a friend of a friend.
The scene that follows, in which we intercut their live performance of the song “None of Us Are Free,” gives the audience a short break from the distressing details of Deborah’s legal battle. And at this point in the film, I believe the audience is glad to have that break from “the brain” of the movie and to have a moment to return to “its heart.” We come back to Deborah’s character to see how she holds her head high and inspires others, even as she waits and struggles for her freedom.
While neither Speech nor Deborah are legal experts, at this point in the film we have already heard from the experts and the case for Deborah’s freedom has been made. While additional evidence will be discovered and brought to light in subsequent scenes, this scene is foreshadowing the possibility that it may be the court of public opinion – rather than the Los Angeles Superior Court – that can set Deborah free.
Initially, I began production of this project simply because of my attraction to the high-stakes storyline and all three main characters: Debbie and her attorneys Joshua and Nadia. Over time, however, working on the film has transformed me into a vocal advocate for all victims of domestic violence, especially those who would otherwise be forgotten and denied justice.
This is why, alongside the release of the film, I am working to create change through DEBBIE’S CAMPAIGN, a nonprofit project that partners the film with dozens of domestic violence prevention organizations, bar associations, womens’ groups, law schools, and other institutions. Our aim is to create real change in ending domestic violence and wrongful incarceration.
We’re thrilled to have the support of the Oprah Winfrey Network for the film and for this effort, and I believe that the combined power of the box office release of the film, our upcoming national TV broadcast in November, our eventual home video release as part of the OWN Documentary Club, and our partnerships with national, state, and community organizations can fulfill Deborah’s vision. It is simply that her story be told in order to make sure that others do not suffer the abuse and injustices that she did. It’s something I’m fully dedicated to now, and when you see the film, I think you will understand why.