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Return to the Scene of ‘Crime After Crime’
As part of a new retrospective series from the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, Philadelphians will get the chance to see one of the best-reviewed documentaries of the last few years and speak with one of its subjects.
The first annual “Best of the Fest” was created to bring back some of the P.J.F.F.’s most popular selections over the past years. As part of the series, Crime After Crime will be shown at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel on Oct. 16.
Originally shown as the opening night feature of PJFF’s 2012 Documentaries and Dialogues, Crime After Crime has gone on to win a number of awards at festivals around the country, including Audience Choice at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and the Berkshire International Film Festival.
The film tells the story of Deborah Peagler, a woman who was sentenced to 25 years-to life for her connection in the murder of her longtime boyfriend, a man who abused her for years. Two decades after her 1983 conviction, thanks to a new California law allowing incarcerated domestic-violence survivors to reopen their cases, Peagler and her attorneys, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, embarked on a years-long quest to set her free.
According to Olivia Antsis, the director of the festival, it was the film’s ability to connect with audiences that made it one of the choices for Best in Fest. Crime After Crime ended up getting the highest audience rating of the festival in 2012, she says.
“We really wanted to give people another chance to see this film that we felt so passionately about," she continues. "When Joshua contacted me about his new book, which expresses more about the events in his own life that originally led him to take on Deborah's case, I was intrigued.”
As part of the evening, Safran will give a talk following the screening. In addition to his work on women’s issues, Safran is a recently published author. His memoir, Free Spirit: growing up on the road and off the grid, provides vividly rendered insight into why he has become such a strong advocate for survivors of domestic violence. The book is a critically acclaimed work that documents Safran’s childhood spent hitchhiking, living in the wilderness, in vans and on communes, and dealing with his mother’s series of boyfriends and a physically abusive stepfather.
At times harrowing, at times hilarious, the book is a clear-eyed reflection on a life less ordinary. His sardonic, detached style makes events that would seem ludicrously unbelievable if told by a less skilled writer into a compelling personal history. Safran says that he has always had the ability to provide a relatively objective running commentary on his life.
“My earliest memories are at the Rainbow Gathering” — a counter-cultural event to promote peace, love, harmony, freedom and community — “when I was six years old,” he recalls. “At the time, I didn’t know what the word was, but I felt like an anthropologist observing them. I never felt part of what I was around as a kid.”
One aspect of his life that he made himself feel part of was his Jewish identity. Once he discovered that he was Jewish at the age of 9, Safran embarked on a path of learning that eventually resulted in his attending yeshiva in Israel. “I didn’t complete semicha,” he says, “but I do perform life cycle events. It is a role I have in my community: I am a small ‘R’ rabbi” in Oakland, Calif.
One question people who have read the book or who know of Safran’s incredible childhood journey will want to ask: How did his mother feel about him publishing this account?
“I never sought her permission, per se, but she never tried to censor anything,” he explains. During his writing process, they met weekly to go over their memories of events. “Anything she told me was fair game. She was very good at not trying to influence the process.”
Safran was always cognizant of the fact that his life was stranger than fiction, but he says that he never would have had the courage or motivation to write his memoir without the urging of Deborah Peagle.
“Debbie gave me the courage to do it and taught me the importance of doing it,” he acknowledges.
As the father of three daughters, the 37-year-old knew that his past could make for some uncomfortable family gatherings at some point. But, he emphasizes, not yet.
“My children know the PG-13 stories, the rough contours of my childhood,” he says. “My 10-year-old isn’t allowed to read it yet — in her mind, it would be boring to read, anyway — she’s heard it all before.”
The Philadlephia Jewish Film Festival runs from Nov. 2 to Nov. 16 at multiple venues throughout the Philadelphia region.
Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival’s “Best of the Fest”: Crime After Crime, with a talk and book signing by Josh Safran
Oct. 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel
8339 Old York Rd., Elkins Park