When you leave a pimp, it’s called ‘blowin up,’” says a woman in this extraordinary documentary, who is trying to do just that. She is getting help with this — a task, she says, that is not only difficult, for many reasons of which financial necessity is but one, but also dangerous — from the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in the New York City borough of Queens. Here, judge Toko Serita has no interest in sending to prison any of the women who appear before her, women who have been arrested on prostitution charges who range from desperate locals with limited opportunities who see little choice but a life on the streets to undocumented immigrants who have been trafficked into the US and forced into sex work. (The judge is also not interested in getting anyone deported.) Instead, Serita ensures that the women, some of whom are quite young, receive counseling, help into school or jobs, and gentle pushes onto a more positive track for their lives, via organization such as Girls Education & Mentoring Services (GEMS) and others, representatives of which are always on hand in the courtroom to advocate for these defendants.
Writer-director Stephanie Wang-Breal, with her third feature, gives us a fly-on-the-wall peek into the court, the women who operate in it, and the women who appear in it. There are almost no talking heads explaining to us what is going on, and we are given little to no background info on the cases Serita is adjudicating. (The snippets of the women’s stories that we do get are sadly familiar. We already know how these women got here.) Almost paradoxically, the lack of context creates a hectic flow that surely must replicate the experience of the bewildered and nervous women appearing before it, as well as what must feel to Serita and her colleagues like an endless parade of desperation and anxiety to be soothed and then repaired, if possible. It only serves to highlight just how hard-won must be the kindness and the humor that Serita in particular is able to deploy day after day. They help so many women! And yet there’s always a long line of women behind them in need of their help.
Blowin’ Up is a wonderful ode to women working together to help other women with realistic solutions to some very complicated problems combined with genuine understanding and support both psychological and practical. (The beautiful and sensitive cinematography by Erik Shirai underscores that what is happening in this courtroom is not adversarial but empathetic and civil on levels personal, cultural, and legal.) No one here pretends their work is easy, 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, and how we can work within a broken system to enact positive results. Until, perhaps, we can blow up that broken system entirely.
Blowin’ Up is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for April 5th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.