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Yoav Potash, the crusading filmmaker behind the new documentary Crime After Crime, grew up in La Jolla. And he discovered his gift for storytelling as a third-grader at La Jolla Elementary School.

For an assignment, he created The Three Cool Mice, a takeoff on Three Blind Mice that featured hipster rodents who wore leather jackets and outsmarted a cat. His stories and pictures, bound with construction paper and yarn, were a hit with classmates.

“I learned what it was like to have a receptive audience,” recalls Potash, 38. “I decided I had to find a way to tell stories for a living.”

That he has done. His documentaries often focus on the downtrodden and victimized, the social cast-offs who have little chance of fighting back. In that sense, his sympathies are still with the mice rather than the cats.

From the Ground Up, for instance, is about college students who assisted in the rebuilding of African-American churches in Alabama that had been destroyed by fire. In Food Stamped, he and his wife, nutrition educator Shira Potash, found out how hard it is to eat healthily on a food stamp budget by trying it themselves.

Crime After Crime, his first feature-length film, opens August 19 at San Diego’s Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15 as part of national distribution. It chronicles the wrenching legal wrangle to free Deborah Peagler, a valiant, African-American woman who received a 25-years-to-life sentence for her involvement in the death of her horribly abusive boyfriend.

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Deborah Peagler

On October 27, during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Potash and one of Peagler’s attorneys, Joshua Safran, will answer questions at a La Jolla screening presented by the nonprofit organization Project SARAH. In November, Crime After Crime will be broadcast on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

To find out more Potash, who lives in the Bay Area, I caught up with him by phone.

Valerie Scher: Your films show deep concern for people who suffer unjustly. Where did that come from?

Yoav Potash: Being Jewish is part of it. It made me recognize what it’s like to be an outsider and experience discrimination. The Jewish people have been through that so many times, with the Holocaust being the prime example that was drilled into me as a child. It made me care about people whose voices weren’t being heard.

Tell me more about your childhood.

I was born in the Los Angeles area but I spent my formative years in La Jolla. My father-- who’s Israeli -- was a computer engineer; my mother was a stay-at-home mom though she now teaches ESL (English as a Second Language). When I was growing up, I was known as “Joe” because my parents didn’t think people could handle a strange name like Yoav. My mom really liked the names Joe and Joey so that’s what I went by. After La Jolla Elementary, I went to Muirlands Middle School and then La Jolla High. I have two older brothers but we’ve all left La Jolla. My parents live in Austin (Texas).

Were you interested in film as a youngster?

I was curious about film my whole childhood and throughout college (at UC Berkeley). But I just couldn’t figure out where I was going to get something like $50 million to make a movie. (Laughs.) Once I stumbled onto the idea of documentaries I realized that you can make them for much less than that. You can just kind of grab a camera and start.

How much did Crime After Crime cost?

About $300,000, which is dirt cheap when you consider that I worked on it for five and one-half years. I managed to get some grants, including one from the Sundance Institute. I also had work-in-progress screening events that were, in part, fundraisers.

Did you help pay for the film yourself?

I sure did. I paid roughly half.

Did you ever imagine Deborah Peagler’s search for justice would take so long and have so many ups and downs?

No. But even at the most devastating moments, when she thought she was going to be set free but wasn’t, she would re-focus on the most upbeat attitude she could take. She always had faith that there was a bigger plan. She would always try to see how God was casting her in the role she was meant to play.

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Deborah Peagler (center) with attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa.

Her pro bono laywers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, are heroic figures in the film. Are you still in touch with them?

Oh, absolutely. They come to various screenings of the film. They relish the opportunity to mentor others who take on cases similar to Debbie’s.

What are you up to now? What’s your current project?

I really see my main activity as being Debbie’s Campaign, the nonprofit project that extends the impact of the film. We want to help prevent what happened to Debbie from happening to others. That means trying to get the film shown at every law school in the country. It means bringing the film into jails and prisons. And it means allowing organizations across the country to use the film as part of their efforts to get laws passed that will help victims of domestic violence get a fair shake in the justice system.

Read David Elliott's review of Crime After Crime.

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Comments

blueprl Aug. 16, 2011 @ 6:30 p.m.

This documentary is an indictment against those who blame the victim and distort the legal system for their own gain. I commend the director, Yoav Potash, for creating such a powerful film.
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Valerie Scher Aug. 16, 2011 @ 9:54 p.m.

Deborah Peagler experienced so much injustice. One can only hope that "Crime After Crime" helps right some of those wrongs.

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