We pray the words every day, but they probably don’t register: “matir asurim,” who frees the captive. Perhaps they are too familiar, our recitation too rote. But the commandment, like the instruction to seek justice, is one of the essentials of Jewish thought and life.
It is also at the heart of Yoav Potash’s first feature film, “Crime After Crime,” which opens in New York on July 1. “Crime After Crime” is an intelligent story of crime and unjust punishment, following the California case of Deborah Peagler. Peagler, who is African American, was a victim of long-term and vicious abuse by her boyfriend (who also pimped her), and was manipulated into a totally inappropriate guilty plea to charges of first-degree murder. Her case was taken on by an unlikely duo of attorneys, Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, whose “day job” was real estate law. Although neither had a background in criminal law, they brought something more important to the table: empathy and a thirst for justice.
Safran, an Orthodox Jew, grew up watching his mother be brutalized at home. Costa, a former social worker for Children’s Protective Services, had been in an abusive relationship herself. The empathy was real, not feigned.
Safran has a vivid recollection of the first time he and Peagler broke through to one another.
“When I would ask her about the abuse, she would emotionally and physically close down,” he said earlier this week, speaking from his office. “She would say, ‘I don’t remember much and nobody saw anything.’ You have to understand that I was a comparative stranger, asking her to revisit the most humiliating and painful experience of her life in order to make it part of the public record for anyone who wanted to read about it.
“Then one day, she was talking about how [her boyfriend] Oliver would patch her up after he was done beating her, swabbing her cuts and bruises with witch hazel, using a raw steak to bring down the swelling. I told her that my stepfather would do that with my mom. She shot me this look and asked me, ‘What are you talking about?’ I began sharing with her not as a lawyer, but as a friend, just two survivors talking one to the other. And at that point she really opened up.”
For both Potash and Safran, the case strongly resonated with their Jewish identities as well.
Safran was influenced by his reading of a biography of Reb Aryeh Levine, the British Mandate-era chaplain of the central prison in Jerusalem.
“He was a haredi rabbi, a real tzadik [righteous man] who kept all the mitzvot,” Safran explained. “The British tried to hire him, but he wouldn’t take money for his work there, and when friends and colleagues would ask him about working with the ‘dregs of society,’ murderers and thieves and the like, he would tell them, ‘This is the highest congregation in Israel; if you can get these men to connect with God, that is the highest thing you can do.’”
The book triggered thoughts on the injunction to redeem the captive. Safran, who had spent time learning in a Jerusalem yeshiva before coming back to the United States and law school, began reading about rabbis “whose full-time job was to travel from place to place, coordinating the release of Jewish captives.”
He added, “Maybe if Deborah had been living in a Disneyland-like prison and gotten her day in court, I wouldn’t have been involved but her case was a symptom of massive injustice, working for her was tikkun olam [repairing the world].”
That is a big part of what drew Potash to the story.
“For me, one of the things Judaism teaches us is to be in this world, to do our work in this world,” Potash said. “I feel on the whole that Judaism is not a religion that teaches you to act this way to go to heaven, to achieve good things in the next world. You have to do the right things because they are the right things to do. I try to live that way and use my talents to that end. I’m not interested in doing something just to entertain, to make fluff. I hope to make films that improve lives in some way.”
Making the film was a six-year-long odyssey for Potash. Although the finished product premiered last winter at the Sundance Festival — “I was working on it up the very last moment,” he confessed — his own journey with the film and the case is not quite over. Oprah Winfrey’s OWN has contracted to distribute the film on home video and streaming video online, and Potash is busily setting up theatrical release around the country.
“Right now, this is my next project,” he said. “This film was my baby, and having the film completed and premiering at Sundance is a lot like having that baby graduate high school. Now I could walk away but to me the responsible thing to do is to make sure my baby goes to college and goes out into the world in the most responsible way.”
To that end, Potash and the two lawyers have joined with a coalition of domestic violence advocates, synagogues and bar association groups to create Deborah’s Campaign, an attempt to use “Crime After Crime” as an educational and organizing tool for cases like Peagler’s. In an unusual move, the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which had been a key funder of the film, is working with Potash on the campaign as well.
“They’ve gone beyond [funding the film] to be more than just a financial backer,” Potash said. “They’ve really been a partner in promoting the film and in working with me and all of the other organizations that are involved in Debbie’s Campaign.”
That’s only appropriate, since the filmmaker himself has gone beyond just making the film.
“That’s why I’ve launched the project, to make sure everyone working on the ground trying to end domestic violence and wrongful incarceration knows about the film, and can use it to educate people and raise funds for the work they are doing,” Potash said.
There are always more captives to be freed.
“Crime After Crime,” directed by Yoav Potash, opens July 1 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.) For information, phone 212-924-7771 or go to www.ifccenter.com. For information about Deborah’s Campaign, go to http://crimeaftercrime.com/get-involved.