By Michael Fox
Yoav Potash’s damning exposé of California’s unjust treatment of a black female inmate, “Crime After Crime,” gradually revs audiences into a state of righteous outrage. At the same time, it invites viewers to kvell at the selfless efforts of an Orthodox Jewish lawyer to even the scales.
This combination of unexpected characters and acute emotion has transformed the documentary into an award magnet since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Potash, a native son who graduated from La Jolla High School and now makes his home in Berkeley, readily identifies the source of his passion for social-justice filmmaking.
“Part of where I got my interest in telling the story of the underdog is in my own upbringing, hearing the stories of Jews and especially the Holocaust, and knowing we were denied our rights and denied our ability to even tell the world what was happening to us,” Potash explains. “So that’s made me keen on looking for the stories of anyone who has been silenced or who has been systematically wronged.”
“Crime After Crime” relates the saga and odyssey of Deborah Peagler, who received a 25-year sentence in 1983 for her incidental role in the murder of her abusive boyfriend. Two decades later, California became the first state to allow new trials of imprisoned victims of domestic violence. A pair of real estate lawyers with no criminal justice experience, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, volunteered to take on Debbie’s case.
“I think Joshua comes across in Jewish terms as such a mensch,” Potash muses. “Even audiences that don’t know or use that word, they kind of fall in love with him or at the very least are very impressed with him and see him as a sort of hero. And that is bonding for someone who is not Jewish and maybe hasn’t seen a lot of positive depictions of Jews.”
Cheryl Bruser, outreach coordinator for Jewish Family Service of San Diego’s Project Sarah, had a different visceral response.
“As soon as I saw that picture [on the film’s Web site] of him wrapping tefillin, and read that he had watched his own mother being abused, then I knew we had to bring this film,” she says.
JFS-Project Sarah, which offers a host of services for people dealing with abuse, presents a benefit screening of “Crime After Crime” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla with Yoav Potash and Joshua Safran on hand. The filmmaker’s longtime friends Nachman Wajcman and Ross Hendler, who composed part of the film’s score, will perform. (For more information and tickets, visit www.jfssd.org and click on the Project SARAH: “Crime After Crime” icon on the home page, or call (858) 637-3322.)
Safran recalls that he was at a crossroads after a downbeat summer clerking in the public defender’s office in the East Bay city of Richmond.
“I had rejected doing criminal work as an option,” he recalls. “I found the defendants, quite frankly, to be criminals. The turning point was Nadia walked into my office, and asked, ‘Do you want to help me get a battered woman out of prison?’ The term ‘battered woman’ made me say yes without knowing anything else about [the case]. The reason wasn’t conscious at that moment, but it became apparent pretty quickly that I was doing this as a result of my experience as a child with domestic violence.”
Safran and Peagler didn’t hit it off at their first meeting. Until, that is, she described how her boyfriend used raw meat to reduce the swelling after he’d beat her. Safran was thrown back to his childhood, when his mother’s batterer did the same thing. Instantly, the awkward client-attorney relationship was supplanted by a couple of survivors telling war stories.
For her part, Peagler is one of the key elements that makes “Crime After Crime” so galvanizing.
“I knew she was a real leader behind bars,” Potash says. “That made her much more interesting and sympathetic and dynamic than someone who was ‘just’ wrongfully imprisoned. She was someone who was making the most of her life whether she was going to spend that life behind bars or not. All of that makes you as a viewer want to see her free all the more.”
Potash can’t take credit for “casting” the people in “Crime After Crime,” of course, but he had the smarts to realize that he had a story that worked on a multitude of levels for a wide range of audiences.
“I’m proud it can hold its own either in a totally Jewish context or a totally secular context,” Potash says. “That was my vision when I crafted the film. I wanted it to be Jewish enough that Jewish festivals and audiences saw something of themselves in the film, and at the same time non-Jewish audiences would feel like it’s not overly Jewish but that they would learn something about Jews and other issues in a positive way.”
And that, inevitably, brings us back to Safran. A disarming fellow with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, he’s come to terms with his childhood.
“I was raised by Wiccans and pagans off the grid in rural Washington state,” he explains. “I grew up in a vegetarian household because we didn’t believe in violence to animals. But we had raw meat on hand for the bruises.”
Safran realized he was Jewish at a young age, and his path — the subject of a childhood memoir he’s writing entitled “Wandering in the Wilderness” — eventually led him to a yeshiva in Safat. “Crime After Crime” has given him a certain visibility, and he makes a candid observation.
“The one thing that has been troubling to me [about the response to the film] is a lot of [Jewish] people have given me sort of a backhanded compliment, saying essentially, ‘It’s amazing that you did this even though you’re an Orthodox Jew.’ That’s really sad to me. At the same time, I understand why they’re saying it. The Orthodox community in America has an image of insularity, and that’s a problem. For me, part of what being an Orthodox Jew means is having the same engagement with the secular world and the non-Jewish world that every other group of Jews does, except for essentially different reasons.”
Safran has another cause he feels strongly about. Cheryl Bruser frames in through her experience at Project SARAH.
“Abuse can happen to anyone,” she declares. “There are no boundaries. There’s a myth in the Jewish community that Jewish men don’t abuse their wives. That’s just one of the many reasons Jewish women don’t come forward. They don’t think anyone’s going to believe them. They feel shame. But it’s a shanda — a bigger shame — for the whole community.”