Stephanie Wang-Breal’s calmly compassionate fly-on-the-wall documentary Blowin’ Up takes viewers inside a unique courtroom in Queens. Run by Judge Toko Serita, the court is the first of its kind to approach prostitution in a way that encourages solving problems rather than compounding them. Counseling and training take the place of shaming and judgment.
Wang-Breal introduces us to the people — mostly women — who pass through Serita’s courtroom. There are caring, overworked, but tireless defenders; sympathetic prosecutors; and the “criminals” themselves — women who’ve been charged with a crime for making a living the only way that was available to them. Or, in some cases, in a way that was forced upon them; the film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the harsh realities of modern sex trafficking.
As it follows several women and their cases through the court, Blowin’ Up (the title is taken from a slang term for when a woman leaves her pimp) makes it abundantly clear that caring, accountability, and intervention — not punishment and imprisonment — are the keys to breaking the prostitution cycle. Politics also play a role, of course; the court finds itself in ICE’s crosshairs after Trump wins the 2016 election and the climate toward immigrants and refugees undergoes a seismic shift.
But the court’s regulars never lose faith in their approach –or give up on the women they’re trying to help. They’re a close-knit group (an unexpected loss hits them all quite hard), and they truly believe in the work they’re doing. Here’s hoping that, with its immediacy and quiet force, Blowin’ Up helps that work become a movement. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
MaryAnn Johanson Stephanie Wang-Breal’s brilliant documentary is a wonderful ode to women working together to help other women out of a dangerous life and onto a better track, with realistic solutions to some very complicated problems combined with genuine understanding and support both psychological and practical. No one here says this work is easy, and there’s certainly no unspoken suggestion that it is, but this is nevertheless a hugely heartening examination of the successes that a new approach to an old issue can yield, if only we think creatively and compassionately about the situation. Bravo to Wang-Breal and to all her subjects here. Read full review.
Loren King Stephanie Wang-Breal’s powerful and timely film shines a light on the rare workings of a legal system that exists to help, not punish; to advocate, not to judge; and to genuinely find a way to change the bleak lives of the mostly young, marginalized women including trans women who survive by doing sex work in the massage parlors and on the streets of Queens. Read full review.
Marina Antunes One generally thinks of the court system as the second stop on the way to incarceration but in at least one place in New York City, that’s not the case. The Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court (HTIC) was established in 2004 to handle sex trafficking cases in a completely new and novel way: rather than ushering (mostly) women into the prison system, the court, led by Judge Toko Serita and a dedicated group of prosecutors, lawyers and councillors, work with women to rehabilitate and get them out of the sex trade. Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Blowin’ Up takes us inside the court where everyone is working for the best interest of the victims and though we also get insight into some of these women’s heartbreaking stories, ultimately Wang-Breal’s documentary is an uplifting look at a group of people and a system which is working to better not only the lives of the people who come into direct contact with the system but the community at large.
Sheila Roberts Blowin’ Up is slang for when a prostitute leaves her pimp. It’s especially apropos as the title for Stephanie Wang-Breal’s engrossing new documentary about sexually exploited young women and the special bond that develops in a unique NYC Court between them and the judges, social workers, defense attorneys and prosecutors dedicated to helping them. Founded by Rachel Lloyd in 1998, the GEMS Program empowers young women to make positive changes in their lives. In the case of those being prosecuted for prostitution, if they follow the Program, their case will be adjourned in contemplation of dismissal. This means that there is no admission of guilt, which in certain situations can mean deportation, and that their case is ultimately sealed. Wang-Breal’s latest film is tautly directed and timely. In the face of devastating budgetary cuts under the Trump Administration, this helmer makes a compelling case for why it’s essential to promote justice for these young survivors who find themselves held hostage by a dysfunctional criminal justice system.
Sandie Angulo Chen: There’s something almost spiritual in the work that the judge, lawyers, counselors and social workers in the documentary Blowin’ Up do to help sex workers and victims of human trafficking. If a society is to be judged by how they treat “the least of these,” the subjects of Stephanie Wang-Breal’s film should be celebrated. The unnarrated doc plunges viewers into Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queen, New York, where Judge Toko Serita has presided over cases since the pilot court program began in 2004. Women arrested on prostitution charges are taken to the court and offered five-to-10 sessions in approved diversion programs in exchange for charges being dismissed. Wang-Breal, along with her talented cinematographer Erik Shirai, follow Judge Serita, social worker and court advocate Eliza Hook, and several of the sex workers themselves, including a Chinese American advocate who empathizes with the plight of undocumented women forced into “massage” parlor brothels. Hook, who at the time of filming worked for Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS) is particularly passionate about mentoring and following up with young women who are routinely exploited and rearrested. This is a thought-provoking and insightful film about women in need of compassion not criminalization.
Jennifer Merin Stephanie Wang Breal’s latest documentary, Blowin’Up, is a beautifully crafted documentary that captures intimate on camera conversations with well-positioned fly on the wall observation of court procedures and daily life to deliver a well-researched, convincing deliberation about the prostitution of young women, a crucial issue that concerns women of all ages. This must see film should be seen as a double bill with Very Young Girls. Read full review.
Marilyn Ferdinand: What happens to the low-hanging fruit of the criminal justice system? That’s exactly what sex workers are—easy targets for undercover cops to bust and arrest again and again because they usually have no alternative way of making a living. Documentary filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal focuses her acutely aware lens on the women who work in the Queen’s Human Trafficking Intervention Court, headed by Judge Toko Serita, who are trying to help women who have fallen into “the life” climb out of it through counseling and the constant encouragement of case workers in the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) program. The court also serves women who have been trafficked from Asian countries and forced into prostitution as it tries to work with the police to identify and arrest the traffickers. It’s an uphill battle for Serita, the GEMS advocates, and especially the women they are trying to help, but is is encouraging to see the justice system turn toward a rehabilitative function it abandoned years ago when a punitive “law and order” ethos overtook America. Wang-Breal’s intimate approach to her story helps viewers empathize with the work these women are doing to help save lives and create change, one person at a time.
Pam Grady: Immersive, mostly cinema verite documentary focuses on a special New York court that treats sex workers as victims and as people in need of a fresh start. Over roughly ninety minutes, the judge, the prosecutor, social workers, and some of those who come before the court come into sharp focus as personalities while the film delves into the sensitive way cases are handled and how the accused–mostly women of color and immigrants–begin the steps to a new life. It is riveting filmmaking as far as it goes, but as personnel changes roil the court and the Trump administration cracks down on undocumented aliens, bringing ICE agents into the courtroom, and with scarce emphasis on long-term outcomes for those who have been through the program, the picture feels incomplete.
Cate Marquis Stephanie Wang-Breal uses an unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall approach, with no narration and few interviews. Mostly, we just see the court and the people around it doing their good work, but we also follow a few individual stories. The court room footage proves surprisingly involving and even gripping at times. We come to care about these young women who have fallen into this life, often out of economic need and now have no way to escape, as well as the people with the court and non-profit striving to open that door for them. Read full review.
Title: Blowin’ Up
Directors: Stephanie Wang Breal
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Running Time: 94 minutes
Production Company: Once in a Blue, POV
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin