"Kandie" in BLOWIN' UP. Photo credit: Erik Shirai

When a woman leaves her pimp, it’s called “blowin’ up.” Stephanie Wang-Breal’s new documentary brings politics of justice to Tribeca.

As nonfiction, a film is first and foremost a tool of polemic. The potency of documentaries largely rides on their ability to capture in the film something that was never meant to be seen or shared, and distributing it in the name of change – bringing a new meaning to the term “exposure.” Such is the case for a lot of documenteurs and a lot of the money floating around them.

Look only to JustFilms, the movie production arm of the uber-philanthropic Ford Foundation, which announces its role to “fund social justice storytelling and the 21st-century arts infrastructure that supports it.” This year, JustFilms has helped produce two films in the Tribeca line-up: Roll Red Roll, and Blowin’ Up, both of which deal intimately with sexual politics.

Because philanthropic productions are so based on identifying and minimizing problems, I was pleasantly surprised to walk into a screening for the latter and find it, in fact, to be a portrait of things going well for social justice. From the start, Blowin’ Up refuses to declare its purpose as simply righting something wrong.

That might be because the issue at the heart of Wang-Breal’s documentary is, if not the world’s oldest profession, certainly one of its primary moral ambiguities. Sex workers in New York enter into “the life” for a whole host of reasons which range from debt management to blatant exploitation, and the city’s Human Trafficking Intervention Court is one of the only cogs in a vast legal machinery to question their criminality. Wang-Breal’s film burrows into the gritty ambiance of the Queens County Criminal Court for an extended ethnography of its inhabitants, relaying their struggles and achievements to us in a captivatingly open way.

The court is presided over by Honorable Judge Toko Serita, a pioneering influence of this experimental legal strategy, whose work is dedicated almost exclusively to trying various young Asian and African-American women who have been arrested on charges of prostitution. They are given legal counsel in the form of Eliza Hook, who tells them – with the amiable assistance of Hon. Serita herself – that they at this point don’t need to plead guilty or not guilty; they can merely agree to a six-month program offered by the state to help extricate them from their positions of sex work, at which point their graduation seals their record and pronounces them free to go.

Director Stephanie Wang-Breal was shocked to find a court exclusively run and occupied by women.

We’ve seen courtroom drama before, and the tropes which the legal system provides us are ample. Footage from Queens County threatens to defy all of them as we find ourselves in a situation where the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge (who also acts as the jury for these minor crimes) are all in good standing and seem mutually supportive of one another. While it is as typical in real life as in Hollywood for prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence possible for defendants on the state’s behalf, Hon. Serita’s court is a place that has reconciled itself to a singular mission and has everyone involved participating. Snippets of the plea process, which make up a large portion of the film and are shown without emphasis, allow the viewers to decide for themselves just how radical it is that a county court has created a process to subvert sentencing.

Hon. Serita, the architect of this experiment, presides with a clear warmth and familiarity I have never before seen in court. “Did I arraign you?” She asks one defendant, trying to recognize her, “Yes I did! Well, I’m just happy you’re here and not somewhere else.” “One thing I’m concerned about is the number of arrests you have,” the judge notes at another point. Most people don’t expect that kind of concern from our penal system today, especially most women of color. “This court is not interested in seeing you as a criminal,” you’ll hear several times throughout the documentary. Another shocking factor, and certainly a related one, comes from looking at the members of the system themselves. Besides the occasional bailiff, the place is exclusively run and occupied by women.

If Blowin’ Up has an obvious through-line, it is with Kandy, a sex worker who goes through the extraction program provided by the court, and offers the camera an explanation of how she got in to sex work in the first place (her boyfriend needed money for bail), in one of the only direct subject-to-camera interactions. She also supplies the film with its title.

“It’s called blowin’ up when you leave your pimp…so I blew up.” Kandy’s story is, perhaps, what we would most easily identify with the phrase ‘prostitution’ – working for a pimp who often placed her in dangerous situations for a high financial gain, who the court calls her “exploiter.” But, at least in the film’s treatment, Kandy’s line of work is overshadowed by workers in the Flushing, Queens massage parlors.

These women are often undocumented immigrants who may simply operate as part of the front, or do the work in the back, in situations far more forced than that one Kandy takes responsibility for, at which point ‘trafficking’ is more appropriate terminology. Wang-Breal follows these victims to sessions at the New York Asian Women’s Center and beyond, building on an intricate web of care that forms the safety net of a very dangerous business.

From the start, Blowin’ Up refuses to declare its purpose as simply righting something wrong.

Once these patterns are shown, the film does little to remark on them, until things slowly begin to change. The court’s chief prosecutor passes away suddenly, leaving Hon. Serita frantic to find a person from the D.A.’s office with the same kind of understanding of their work. Eliza Hook, the public defender, decides to move out of the city with her girlfriend. In a disturbing development placed a little too late in the film, we are told that ICE agents have begun raiding the courtroom and apprehending undocumented women awaiting their trail – a legal conundrum that seems tailor-made for our current federal administration. Hon. Serita regretfully admits that there’s little to be done about it. Slowly and slightly, a network we have just come to know exists begins to feel threatened.

Is that then, the point of the film – to rally support behind a fragile system which is, for once, doing its job with citizens in mind? Or was Wang-Breal simply recording the developments of an interesting legal experiment for posterity? The answer probably depends on your opinion of the court’s politics, which, like so much else in the world of sex work, is in the eye of the beholder. The real political message of Blowin’ Up is simply found in its existence, in bringing to the open something which thrives so well behind closed doors.

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Nolan Kelly

Nolan Kelly writes on film He currently lives in Brooklyn