Festival Director Tony Gittens tells me that Filmfest DC is the only festival in the world that has a Justice Matters award. I had the privilege of serving on the jury for Filmfest DC’s 2011 Justice Matters series, made possible by the locally based CrossCurrents Foundation. It’s unusual for small foundations to focus on social justice issues, but CrossCurrents is firmly grounded in support of art that creates social change.
This year’s series featured five powerful and uniquely different films. “Tears of Gaza” presents, without narration, never-before-seen, and in some cases highly graphic, footage from within Gaza during the 2009 Israeli military assault. “Crime After Crime” takes a very personal look at the unjust incarceration of women who have suffered from domestic abuse. “I Am Slave” is a fictional narrative that told the first person story of a young Sudanese girl enslaved and sent to London. “Nostalgia for Light” juxtaposes the celestial observatories of the Atacama Desert in Chile with the search for the remains of Pinochet’s victims in their shadows. “The Green Wave” takes audiences inside the green revolution that forever changed the course of Iranian politics, a story told through interviews, blogs, twitter feeds and animation.
While each of these films deserves exclusive recognition, the jury for Justice Matters unanimously agreed that one film stood out as embodying the mission to bring awareness into action. That film was “Crime After Crime.”
Director Yoav Potash said in accepting the award, “Through this film and our outreach campaign, we aim to reform our legal system so that other victims of abuse do not have to suffer the injustices that Deborah Peagler endured.”
Deborah Peagler, known as Debbie, is the protagonist whose story and depth of character tugs at the heartstrings of any social justice seeker. “Crime After Crime” tells the story of two attorneys, one a long distance runner and the other an Orthodox Jew, who take on what becomes a six year battle to free Debbie from a verdict that put her in jail for 25 to life.
Debbie was a victim of domestic abuse as a young woman, and in a tragic mistake, she was made culpable in the death of her abuser. But the evidence of her abuse was not permitted in court and she was threatened with the death sentence for not pleading guilty to first degree murder.
Decades later, the story of her quest for freedom is a story of corruption, obstruction of justice and extreme endurance for victim, advocates, family and filmmaker. In the bigger picture, “Crime After Crime” points out that 80% of women incarcerated in the United States are victims of domestic abuse.
But “Crime After Crime” is not just a narrative, it is a campaign within and without the film. Potash said he began editing works in progress almost as soon as he started filming. The result was clips that could easily be absorbed by local news outlets. Meanwhile Potash becomes part of the story, with the camera called out for turning points and confronting antagonists.
Audiences aren’t exempt from the action. Before walking into the theatre, each person is handed a card with information on Debbie’s Campaign and a pen lest anyone protest. More than a few can be seen frantically filling out the form to donate when walking back out.
“Crime After Crime” and its Justice Matters peers demonstrate clearly that art can be a catalyst for social justice. Filmfest DC audiences claimed their own vote for social justice –“The Green Wave” won this year’s documentary audience award. For the second year in a row a Justice Matters series film holds this honor.