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Community Engagement and Social Justice Documentaries

July 08, 2011

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about Film and the "Dirty War.")

Crime_after_crime Crime After Crime is a new documentary that describes a fault line in our justice system -- and is actively engaged, as a larger project, in trying to change it. The film was one of two to receive the Henry Hampton Award at the Council on Foundations' Film and Video Festival, presented in collaboration with Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media, at the council's recent annual meeting in Philadelphia.

Deborah Peagler, the subject of Crime After Crime, was brutally abused by her boyfriend over a number of years, beginning when she was 15; fearing for the lives of her children and herself, and with no recourse to legal remedies, Peagler turned to friends and family for protection and was implicated in his subsequent murder. Eventually, she was sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison. (It's estimated that as many as four thousand women are currently in prison for killing their abusers.)

At the time of Peagler's conviction, in 1983, domestic violence wasn't recognized as a mitigating factor in the prosecution of victims who commit crimes against their abusers. Twenty years later, thanks to the efforts of a coalition of women's organizations, including a group of women inmates, things have changed. According to Marisa F. González, coordinator of the California Habeas Project, which recruits, trains, and assigns pro-bono lawyers to cases: "In 1989, a group of women at the California Institution for Women got together to found Convicted Women Against Abuse, the first prisoner-led support group for battered women in the country. Advocates in the anti-domestic violence movement heard about the group's efforts and began recruiting lawyers to help each woman file an individual clemency petition, giving details and evidence about the abuse she had experienced and its relevance to her criminal conviction."

A new organization, the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison (now Free Battered Women), was formed to lead a movement to challenge the laws. A variety of funders provided support, including the Fund for Nonviolence, the San Francisco Foundation, Eileen Fisher, Inc., the Five Bridges Foundation, the Women's Foundation of California, and the van Loeben Sels/Rembe Rock Foundation, among others.

As a result of those efforts, in 2002 California became the first state to recognize a history of domestic abuse as a legitimate defense and to allow the cases of convicted victims to be reopened. Through the Habeas Project, two young lawyers took up Peagler's case and discovered a labyrinth of missteps and corruption in her original conviction, as well as inexplicable foot-dragging with respect to reopening her case. The film follows the dogged work of the legal team and Peagler's fortitude as her appeal goes through a series of unexpected ups-and-downs over the course of five long years.

"I became interested in Debbie's story through a friend, one of the two pro-bono lawyers who were working on her case," says director Yoav Potash. "Over time, I realized that the film could help free her and that she was part of a larger community." The Sundance Documentary Film Program, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Lynn and Jules Kroll Fund for Jewish Documentary Film at the Foundation for Jewish Culture are the major funders of the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and has gone on to win awards at national and international festivals since then.

Marion Dienstag, director of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which supports artists and scholars exploring Jewish traditions, told me at the Council on Foundations screening that "Crime After Crime interested us because one of the lawyers in the film, a religious Jewish man, is shown living his faith -- not only through practicing Judaism but also through his commitment to justice, which is a part of Jewish teachings to 'repair the world'."

As its popularity at festivals attests, Crime After Crime is an example of how documentary films are meeting a demand for in-depth stories about important issues. But popularity isn't the only goal. "A film is never over when it's done, especially a documentary about social change," says Potash. "We're just beginning to use the tools we've created." The Web site for the film includes a discussion guide, a list of organizations working on issues addressed in the film, and information on how to advocate for better laws and public policies. A Fledgling Fund grant enabled the filmmakers to launch Debbie's Campaign, a national initiative to promote laws and policies similar to the California law, and the Foundation for Jewish Culture has helped identify partner organizations.

There are a number of issues in this case -- and, as a consequence, a number of audiences for the film, primarily domestic violence organizations but also bar associations and young lawyers groups. "We are working with advocates in several targeted states who know the local situation and have a clear idea of what is needed there," says Potash. "One goal is to broaden parole boards' definition of 'abuse' to really reach the population of victims. It's estimated that 80 percent of women in prison are victims of domestic violence."

Long-time film festival programmer Linda Blackaby, in a post on her National Alliance for Media Art + Culture blog, notes that "while filmmakers have always networked energetically with activist grassroots groups and non-governmental organizations, recent developments in digital technology greatly expand the potential for accessibility, reach and speed of their communications. Anyone who has attended a session of The Good Pitch has seen firsthand the increasingly sophisticated communities of funders, broadcasters, NGOs, organizations and activist grassroots groups that come together in support of individual film projects."

Crime After Crime is also at the forefront of a more aggressive audience engagement movement within the documentary film world. It was one of five films featured in the 2011 Filmfest DC's "Justice Matters" series, created two years ago by festival director Tony Gittens and curated by Blackaby. The series highlights the use of film -- both narratives and documentaries -- to expand awareness of social justice issues. The CrossCurrents Foundation funded the series' juried award, which Crime After Crime captured.

As part of the series, the "Impact Project" (funded by the Wyncote Foundation) works to develop program and engagement activities for selected films. Crime After Crime was partnered with the Washington, D.C.-based Pro-Bono Institute and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights for a post-screening discussion. "We want groups like this to see the film and then to define what the next steps might be to address the issues," says Potash. "The festival provided an excellent platform for us to begin national outreach to nonprofits and community groups, which we are now expanding as the film arrives in theaters from coast to coast."

Several other film festivals are creating community links for social issues films. In another blog post, Blackaby praised the community engagement program developed by the Cleveland International Film Festival, which also screened Crime After Crime. At each screening, CIFF distributes a Lights! Camera! Action Steps! handout showing audience members how to get involved after the screening, including connecting with local organizations.

The experience of Crime After Crime illustrates the growing interest in issue-based documentary films and the new possibilities they present for impact. The Ford Foundation's creation this year of JustFilms, a $50 million fund to support "filmed content with a social conscience" through film, video and digital works, will expand the number and quality of such films and encourage new approaches to their dissemination. In a subsequent post, I'll look at the foundation's partners in the initiative and how they're moving forward with the new program.

In the meantime, be sure to check out the Legal Services for Prisoners With Children site for more information about the process involved in changing California law as it relates to incarcerated survivors of domestic violence.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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