Lights glisten through a window obscured with raindrops. An incoming airplane disrupts a nighttime New York City skyline. Flickering neon signs advertise 24-hour Asian spas and $20 foot massages. A sparse, dimly lit hotel room’s bed sits, waiting. Unfocused, but unmistakable police lights flash in the distance. These are the expertly composed frames that guide us into the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens.
Before a single word is spoken in Blowin’ Up, director Stephanie Wang-Breal (Wo ai ni mommy) shows us exactly what we’re getting involved in.
The documentary dives into the world of sex work and sex trafficking as seen through the eyes of the court. With this kind of introduction, you might brace yourself for what could become an hour and a half of watching the American justice system shake their heads and wag their fingers at young, vulnerable women. When Judge Toko Serita takes the stand, she is approached by the first defendant, a young Chinese woman who requires a translator. The judge begins by simply asking the woman, “How are you doing today? Good? Are you nervous?”
Serita’s warm smile and genuine questions calm the entire room immediately. Kindness is not often associated with criminal trials, but in a refreshing change of pace, the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court subverts expectations with a simple reframing of the defendant’s situation. Despite being arrested, the women who appear in this court aren’t considered criminals but instead are seen as victims.
Wang-Breal seamlessly weaves together the courthouse’s story with information gathered from snippets of conversations in hallways and phone calls between Serita and her colleagues. We naturally learn about social service organizations like the New York Asian Women’s Center, Garden of Hope, and Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS) as Judge Serita gives every defendant the opportunity to receive counseling in exchange for dropping the arrests from their records.
A court with this much compassion requires a team of equally caring and dedicated public servants. The women running the Human Trafficking Intervention Court are introduced in the film with grace. We observe Serita, Assistant District Attorney Kim Affronti, and countless lawyers and social workers, including Eliza Hook from GEMS, as they try to help exploited women break free from the cycles of abuse they find themselves in.
After one hearing, Hook reminds a woman that she isn’t there to get anyone in trouble. Her goal is to either get them out of the lifestyle completely or at least give them the skills to stay safe and avoid future arrests. Again, they don’t view these women as criminals. The real criminals are the handlers and bosses who profit off exploiting the girls under their control.
Wang-Breal pays an equal amount of attention to the subjects affected by commercial sexual exploitation, who are largely Black, Latino, or Asian immigrants. Often with their faces obstructed to protect their identities, these women reveal to their therapists — and sometimes directly to the camera — how they ended up in sex work.
Surprisingly, there are no blurred faces in Blowin’ Up. Instead, we see extreme close-ups of the subject’s mouths, meaning every woman that wished to remain anonymous had to trust the cinematographer, Erik Shirai, to conceal their identity. At the same time, not blurring out faces humanizes the women and shows respect for them as people. An audience has a much easier time identifying with a subject when they aren’t hiding behind something as unnatural as a floating, circular blur.
Well-paced reveals of who these people are and what they want to accomplish leads to a captivating viewing experience that simultaneously invests you in both sides of the courtroom. An active audience is forced to participate in the subject matter in a way that inserts you into the lives of these women.
Especially for a social issue documentary, there are few accomplishments more vital than being able to place an audience in the subject’s shoes, and Blowin’ Up achieves this goal. The time spent with Judge Serita as she advocates for the court’s process, the conversations between Hooks and the girls she works with, and every moment spent in the courtroom proves why the legal system should reconsider the way they treat prostitution cases.
A director in control of their craft has the ability to convey information through the art of filmmaking better than talking heads or title cards ever could. From Blowin’ Up, it’s clear that Wang-Breal is at the top of her game. She has the gift of opening minds through immersive storytelling and we should be thankful for her work in shedding light on new, unfamiliar perspectives.