Yoav Potash filming at a prison Yoav Potash filming at a prison Yoav Potash's "Crime After Crime" was supposed to take a year to film. Instead it took five. (Photo: Courtesy of Yoav Potash)

Director of 'Food Stamped' and 'Crime After Crime' embraces the unpredictable

Yoav Potash's award-winning documentaries earned him many awards. Learn what he's been up to since.

One of the best – and most difficult – aspects of filming a documentary is the element of unpredictability. A story can take on a life of its own, stretch on longer than expected or even go completely haywire, and there's no way to control or predict the outcome. 

That loss of control is what drives Yoav Potash, director of award-winning films "Food Stamped" and "Crime After Crime," to immerse himself in every project he embarks on, whether it takes five months or five years. It's a trait he believes he inherited from his father, an Israeli immigrant with a Ph.D in electrical engineering and a long career designing supercomputers, who instilled in Yoav a sense of perseverance. Growing up outside San Diego, Calif., Yoav watched his father work tirelessly to support his family. They took only one vacation as a family – to Israel, when Yoav was in kindergarten.

"I remember visiting my aunt and uncle in Rosh Hanikra," Potash tells From The Grapevine about his experience at the natural falls from a cliff along the ocean in northern Israel. There, he remembers, "tasting a fig for the first time. It kind of blew my little mind that figs could exist outside of a Fig Newton cookie. To this day, they are still my favorite fruit."

As an adult, Yoav traveled to Israel a few more times. "On my last trip to Israel I proposed to the woman who is now my wife, so it always has a special place in our hearts and in our relationship," he says.

His wife, Shira, is the co-director of "Food Stamped," the 2010 documentary that turns the tables, so to speak, on America's food stamp program. In it, Shira and Yoav embark on a thought-provoking, sometimes hilarious experiment where they attempt to live on a food-stamp budget for a week while eating foods that are wholesome, healthy and mostly organic. It's a humorous journey for the couple, but it comes with a serious message for viewers.

Yoav Potash and his wife, ShiraYoav Potash and his wife, Shira. (Photo: Courtesy of Yoav Potash)

"We hope people watch the film and understand that eating a healthy diet on a tight budget is perhaps not as easy as it seems," Yoav says. "On the other hand, we do want to share some practical experiences that might inspire people to try to choose and prepare healthier foods."

In the film, Shira and Yoav highlight the importance of farmers markets as a way to level the playing field for food-stamp recipients. At one market in the Watts section of Los Angeles, the couple interviewed several customers who didn't know that food stamps could be used to purchase food there.

"I think that farmers markets are part of the solution, as are taking greater steps to truly support local and diverse agriculture," Yoav says.

His next film, "Crime After Crime," about the struggle to free an incarcerated woman, was released the following year. But where "Food Stamped" focused on one week of meal planning, "Crime After Crime" would prove to be a much more formidable undertaking.

In Yoav's home state of California, a law had just passed that allowed cases of incarcerated victims of domestic violence to be reopened. So he decided to follow one of those cases: that of a woman named Deborah Peagler, who had already served more than 20 years in prison for her connection to the murder of her abusive boyfriend, Oliver Wilson, in 1983. (Read more on Deborah's story here.) 

Much of "Crime After Crime" was filmed in the Central California Women's Facility, the largest all-female institution of its kind in the U.S. Deborah's lawyers, Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, took on Deborah's case pro bono, thinking it would only take a few months to free her from prison. That would turn out to be a gross miscalculation, as the two attorneys would spend five tumultuous years working for Deborah's release.

Deborah Peagler (center) with her lawyers, Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa.Deborah Peagler (center) with her lawyers, Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa. (Photo: Life Sentence Films)

"The events I was documenting took a drastic turn shortly after I began filming," Yoav recalls, "and the saga shifted such that the events that I had thought would be placed at the end of my film ended up only being the middle of the story. In other words, a film that I thought would take a year took more like five years."

Despite the unexpected and sometimes heartbreaking twists, Yoav says he's become "hooked" on this genre of filmmaking.

"When I make a film, I like to think of my task in very simple terms: I want to make you laugh, I want to make you cry, and I want to tell you a story that will make you care about something you may not have been aware of," says Yoav, who started his film career shortly after graduating from UC-Berkeley.

His film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and garnered more than 25 awards, positioned Yoav as a respected social-justice documentarian. Now, he says he's working on adapting "Crime After Crime" into a feature film, though that project is still in its infancy stages. He's written a screenplay for it, which he says "has done very well in some of the top competitions in the industry." All that's left now is attaching a cast and financing.

He's also working on a couple more documentary projects: one about the recent discovery of a Holocaust-era diary written by Rywka Lipszyc, a young girl in the Lodz ghetto; and the other about the effort to open People's Community Market, a community-run supermarket that would address the food desert problem in West Oakland, Calif. 

"To be sure, these films have a good way to go before anyone can say, 'Coming to a theater near you,'" he says. "But I've learned a lot of patience and persistence from my past projects."

"Food Stamped" trailer:

"Crime After Crime" trailer: 

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Director of 'Food Stamped' and 'Crime After Crime' embraces the unpredictable
Yoav Potash's award-winning documentaries earned him many awards. Learn what he's been up to since.