In 1982, Debbie Peagler was desperately trying to escape the clutches of an abusive relationship. Her boyfriend, Oliver Wilson, had been threatening to end her life after years of controlling her every action. Wilson was arrested for his attempts to harm Peagler and although he had put her through years of abuse and tournament, he was released from prison. Peagler enlisted the aid of two gang members who murdered Wilson in a public park. She and the two men were arrested and sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison.
Last year, the disturbing documentary, Crime After Crime premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and bared the callous realities of domestic violence laws. The film not only tells the story of Peagler's life, it also surveys the unfathomable denial of her freedom. The film received tremendous accolades, and has also been regarded as an important device for altering social consciousness when it comes to women who are in danger.
Crime After Crime will be released on DVD by Virgil Films and the OWN documentary Club (a part of the Oprah Winfrey Network) on April 24. The International Business Times had the chance to ask the film's tenacious director, Yoav Potash, about the risks of making a film of this nature and what changes he hopes the film brings about.
What were some of the major setbacks you encountered while making Crime After Crime? How did you avoid discouragement?
There were two different types of setbacks we experienced. First, there were the setbacks of Debbie Peagler's legal battle itself, as she and her attorneys struggled to convince one court or government agency after another that Debbie should be released from prison. One of the biggest of these setbacks occurred when Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley put a deal in writing to free Debbie, only to then reverse course and fight with all his office's might to keep her incarcerated. When developments like this took place, Debbie and her attorneys felt shock, disappointment, and betrayal, and, to a great extent, I did too. The fact that I was documenting all of this, however, helped pull Debbie and her legal team out of that muck of disappointment; they knew that no matter what, this story would be told, and when I started to share excerpts of the film with journalists covering the case, it helped spark a groundswell of public support that eventually proved crucial to their efforts.
Secondly, I experienced setbacks in the filmmaking process itself. These included days when I traveled hundreds of miles to the prison, only to be denied entry because some form or another had been signed four days in advance, instead of the required five days in advance. Other frustrating incidents occurred when Debbie or her legal team didn't want me to film a particular moment, either for reasons of privacy or due to legal concerns. I reacted to these setbacks by, on the one hand, remaining patient and persistent and figuring out a way to get the footage or something similar at a later time, and on the other hand, trying to plan better and to be a more sensitive filmmaker and a more sensitive person. In the case of this film, multiple individuals reveal how they experienced abuse, and that's obviously a very delicate and personal choice that they needed to come to on their own terms.
Your film shows how effective a tool filmmaking can be. What do you think some of the film's major effects have been?
At the time when this film was released, only one state had a law that allowed incarcerated survivors of abuse to petition the courts for their freedom. Now, legislators and organizers in six states are working to pass similar legislation. In New Jersey, for example, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg saw the film and, within weeks, introduced legislation called the New Jersey Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, also to be known as Debbie's Law. The film has also been shown a number of times in support of similar legislation in New York. That's the kind of impact that shows documentary films really can change the world.
There have been a string of amazing documentaries that tackle the cracks in the justice system, for instance, The Thin Blue Line and the Paradise Lost trilogy. What are some films that have inspired your work?
In addition to those great documentaries, I would add Murder on a Sunday Morning and On the Ropes. But I also looked to dramatic films for inspiration. Movies like In the Name of the Father and The Shawshank Redemption also tell stories of inspiring individuals who don't belong behind bars and who have to wage great internal and external battles for their freedom. In many ways, I structured Crime After Crime like a drama, with several plot twists and taught line of suspense running through the film. As a result, I have heard many viewers say things like, I usually don't like documentaries, but this didn't even feel like one.
What happened to Debbie Peagler is extremely upsetting. It seems that those who abuse women are imprisoned for a brief period of time or worse, remain free while they await trial (which makes their victims vulnerable). What can the average American do to change this?
One thing that the average American can do right now is contact their Member of Congress and tell them to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In the past this has been a bi-partisan, no-brainer piece of legislation. VAWA provides direction and training to local law enforcement agencies so that they can better understand and respond to cases involving domestic abuse. When you look at the impact of domestic violence on our hospitals, our courts, and our prisons, this relatively small investment in ensuring the safety of victims of abuse helps save not only lives but also billions of dollars. I would also encourage individuals to support their local and state domestic violence prevention organizations, and in turn, to urge those organizations to be involved at all levels of the criminal justice system. Finally, I would encourage Americans to contact their state representatives and ask them to propose something similar to New York's Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act so that courts can properly take evidence of abuse into account.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
On the one hand, there's some specific information about our justice system that I hope people learn and that they feel motivated to change. For example, many viewers are shocked when they learn that over 80 percent of women in prison today are victims of rape, incest, or some other form of abuse, and yet most have never had the chance to present evidence of that abuse in court. I hope they want to help change that.
On the other hand, I think the dedication and humor that Debbie and her lawyers demonstrate can be inspiring to anyone, in any pursuit. Debbie's lawyers, who were land-use attorneys with no prior experience in criminal law, sometimes had to apologize to Debbie for not knowing the particulars about how parole worked or how to amend their petition in court. To this Debbie replied, That's okay, what am I gonna do -- fire you? There is no one else. She was joking with them, but the truth underneath her quip was that sometimes in life there truly is no one else who can do the work that we feel called to do. That's applicable no matter what your calling is. So I hope people witness Debbie's spirit, which remained buoyant even in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable odds, and say to themselves, If she could face each day with energy and optimism, even from behind bars while serving a life sentence, then I can do it too.