For filmmaker Yoav Potash, the case of Deborah Peagler has become a cause celebre. Peagler was convicted in the murder of her husband in 1982, and has remained in prison even after California enacted a law to allow evidence of domestic abuse to be considered in court.
Potash's documentary "Crime After Crime" playing in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival is a riveting examination of justice denied through political manipulation and prosecutorial callousness. Potash describes the road that led him to tell the story.
How did you learn about Deborah Peagler's case?
"Joshua Safran, [Deborah's lawyer], is a friend of mine. Over time, he would tell me about it. He'd say, 'Oh, yeah, I'm working on this really interesting pro bono case.' ... Honestly, I didn't jump at it right away and say, 'Ooh, that's a film.' 'That sounds kind of complicated and messy' was more my response. But as they started to round the corner toward getting a deal with the Los Angeles District Attorney that was going to enable her freedom, I thought at least there's some momentum with this case. And we had a long brunch after the birth of one of his children, and it was that day that he really had a chance to explain the whole story to me. At that point I committed to go into the prison and meet her face to face. I walked into the prison that day with my camera with the attitude of, 'I'll meet this woman, let's see what happens.' I walked out of the prison six hours later and said, 'I am making this film and it's going to be good.'"
What impressed you when you met Deborah?
"She was willing to lay herself bare in terms of admitting she was a prostitute, she was abused, and she was willing to talk about the abuse in more than enough detail. It was difficult for her, but that came through. She didn't try to hide it. In the present, she was just kind of an all-star at that prison. Everyone admired her: other inmates, new inmates, old inmates, guards, the warden. She leads the gospel choir in the prison, she teaches illiterate inmates to read and write, she has the highest-paid job in the prison. She took other inmates under her wing."
The policy at the California Department of Corrections prohibits media interviews with specific inmates. How did you work around that?
"On the one hand, I was embedded with the legal team. I was their legal videographer. That enabled me to get into their one-on-one meetings in a closed attorney/client room. Once that door was closed, all the guards saw was her with her attorneys and a guy with the camera. Separately from that, putting my member-of-the-press hat back on, I got indications from the prison that the things they really wanted people to film were all of their positive programs that the media never seemed to document. I approached them and asked to film all of those things, and at the same thing I knew Deborah was involved in about half of them. So I began producing this other documentary, which is a 100 percent legitimate real documentary. I'm sure at some point soon, they may say I pulled a Trojan horse on them. But the Trojan horse is real, because it's a documentary that's real and was broadcast on PBS stations.
Crime After Crime screenings
Tuesday, Jan. 25, noon • Holiday Village Cinema IV, Park City
Wednesday, Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m. • Broadway Centre Cinema IV, Salt Lake City
Friday, Jan. 28, 10 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 7, Park City
Saturday, Jan. 29, noon • Screening room, Sundance Resort