'Blowin' Up': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Courtesy of Once in a Blue
'Blowin' Up'
A true justice league of wonder women in action.

Rather than criminalizing sex workers, a New York court helps them change their lives.

Something extraordinarily logical, fair-minded and compassionate is taking place in a New York courtroom, and director Stephanie Wang-Breal gives us fly-on-the-wall access to the business at hand. Instead of being punished, women who have been arrested for prostitution are offered the option of getting their cases dismissed after participating in a social services program. Though it ends on a note of Trump-era panic, Blowin' Up offers one of the most hopeful real-world visions of heroic women — from the judge and DAs to the attorneys, social workers, counselors and, not least, the defendants — ever to fill the screen.

In 2004, Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court became the first of its kind in the United States, and the doc reveals it to be a shining model of forward-thinking justice. Warm and efficient, Judge Toko Serita gives every defendant her full attention and respect. A collaborative energy fills the packed courtroom, the busy hallways, the attorneys' conference room, all of it captured by the fleet, sensitive lensing of cinematographer Erik Shirai.

Eschewing explanatory and identifying onscreen text, Wang-Breal (Tough Love) uses a mostly verite approach to immerse the viewer in the work of the court and the nonprofits it partners with. Their aim is not just to help defendants avoid further arrest but to connect them with the educational and job resources they need to set a new path, one that's free of controlling pimps, promoters and exploiters. The film's title is slang for that act of breaking away. One woman confesses that she's glad she got arrested because it led her here; she wanted to change her life but didn't know how.

In its way, the intervention court is blowin' up the judicial template that pits the government against prostitutes but not, in effect, against prostitution. A public defender shares her frustration with the preponderance of "easy" arrests by undercover cops rather than investigations of the traffickers and their organizations.

Most of the young women who appear before Serita are black, Latina, transgender, or undocumented immigrants from Asia. Of the four defendants the film focuses on, two are clients of the nonprofit GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), and sometimes speak openly to the camera about their experiences. The others, Chinese immigrants who have been trafficked into massage-parlor sex work, are never shown full face, but their sessions with Garden of Hope counselor Susan Liu are wrenching nonetheless.

A key figure in the film is Eliza Hook, a GEMS counselor whose devotion to her clients is so awe-inspiring and productive that it hurts to learn, in the late going, that her time in New York with her "babies" is drawing to an end. To see the way those babies' faces light up when they're at her side in Serita's courtroom is to see cast-aside women feeling proud, stepping out of the margins and into the embrace of true concern and attention.

Wang-Breal began documenting the court's groundbreaking program in 2015, and her film winds to a close in the early days of the Trump presidency, when ICE agents threaten the progress of the Queens program in very real, immediate ways: For noncitizens, a prostitution conviction is a deportable offense. As the fate of DACA and U.S. immigration policy makes its way through other courts, Serita and the remarkable women who work with her are stricken with the most urgent of courtroom dramas. Then they dig in and prepare for the next day's caseload.

Production company: Once in a Blue
Director: Stephanie Wang-Breal
Screenwriter: Stephanie Wang-Breal
Producer: Carrie Weprin
Executive producers: Patty Quillin, Eric and Susan Fredston-Hermann, Blaine Vess, David Panda Lee, Agnes Mentre
Director of photography: Erik Shirai
Editor: Jonathan Oppenheim
Composer: Dan Michaelson
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: Cinetic Media

98 minutes