Arts & Culture

The Big Jewcy: Yoav Potash – Filmmaker Bent On Tikkun Olam

According to Yoav Potash, whose newest documentary is being featured by Oprah’s OWN network, his work is fueled by the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” Read More

By / June 15, 2011

According to Yoav Potash, whose newest documentary is being featured by Oprah’s OWN network, his work is fueled by the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” The documentary, Crime After Crime, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has earned top honors at Jewish and non-Jewish film festivals alike. The documentary tells the story of the legal battle to free Deborah Peagler from prison — over 20 years after she was sentenced to life behind bars for her role in the murder of the man who abused her.  The film, which The Washington Post describes the film as “Harrowing, moving and inspiring,” highlights the efforts of pro-bono attorney Joshua Safran as he and co-counsel Nadia Costa fight to free Deborah. As an Orthodox Jew, Joshua finds inspiration in the traditional Hebrew prayer of matir asurim (literally “free the captives”), which specifically addresses the injustice of wrongful incarceration.  Crime After Crime opens at theaters nationwide this summer, with its premiere run starting at the IFC Center in New York on July 1.

Yoav also recently completed the documentary Food Stamps, in collaboration with his wife, nutrition educator Shira Potash. The film follows the couple as they attempt to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet on roughly one dollar per meal.

We caught up with Yoav, to discus his work, his career, and his inspiration.

What made you decide to study Creative Writing in school?  How and why did you make the transition to film?

I have been passionate about storytelling since the third grade, when our teacher had each of us make up and illustrate a story, and then read and show them to the class. I enjoyed making the little storybook immensely, and then the unexpected bonus came when my classmates heard me read the book and they saw my illustrations — and they loved it. So when I arrived as a college freshman, the first elective course I enrolled in was creative writing, and I basically had the same experience again. I sat down to write, enjoyed the process immensely, and when I shared the work with my peers, they were very moved. So I kept writing all throughout college and was very passionate about it, but at the same time I was very curious about so many types of creative expression, including photography, music, theater, painting, and sculpture, all of which I dabbled in. Film seemed like the one place where you might have a chance to keep dabbling in all of those things in some way, all in service of telling a story. But I never went to a school with a film production program, and whenever I told anyone about my interest in film, they questioned where I would get the millions of dollars required to make a movie. Finally, about a year after I graduated from UC Berkeley, I stumbled into the idea of making a documentary, which appealed to me initially because it could be done on the cheap. Over the 14 years since, I’ve become very comfortable with making documentaries, but if it’s not too crazy to juggle different art forms, I still may get back to creative writing and perhaps dramatic films as well.

Tell me about your background.

My Dad is Israeli, my Mom is an American Jew. I think as a kid I thought that all Israelis were in some way like my Dad — tough, very knowledgeable, and a bit hard to understand in terms of emotions or lack thereof. It wasn’t until I was 18 and I went to visit Israel on my own that I saw that many Israelis, including my uncle, aunt, and cousins, are incredibly warm and thoughtful people who I could relate to in a way that, well, as much as I respect my Dad, he’s just not an easy person for me. Perhaps he would say the same thing about me, because I’m an artist and it’s taken him decades to wrap his mind around that.  But in Israel, I was also struck by how polarizing it is to be religious or secular, while in the US it seems more fluid or more possible to just identify as “culturally Jewish” or “a little religious.”

What role does Judaism play in your life?

I identify strongly as a Jew, and the fact that I am Jewish is pretty obvious to anyone who asks my name or asks about where my name is from. As a kid I was jealous of the other American kids, with their Christmas trees and Easter eggs and everything else. But over time, through meeting other people who had embraced Judaism in a variety of forms, I found my own way to find pride and happiness in being Jewish. I have experimented with being religious –praying every day, keeping kosher, wearing a yamulke, and so forth — but at this point, those feel more like outer trappings of Jewish identity. I’m more concerned and content with an inner sense of being Jewish. Judaism influences how I think about life, how I relate to other people, and how I try to represent and connect with all types of people, whether they are Jewish or not. To me Judaism means that you live primarily to make this world better, not to earn brownie points with the Creator so you can go to the next world. It means treating other people how I would want to be treated. And it means that a sense of humor is a key ingredient to life. This perspective then leads me to include some bits of Jewish identity in my films. I try to walk a fine line where the Jewish content can be part of a larger picture that appeals to anyone, whether they are Jewish or not.