Blowin’ Up, which premiered April 21st at Tribeca FIlm Festival, divulges the everyday realities of an experimental courtroom in New York City working to change the way that women who have been arrested for prostitution are prosecuted. The documentary, directed by Stephanie Wang-Breal, is a beautiful exploration of both the courtroom and the lives of the women who operate it.
The courtroom, headed by Judge Toko Serita, is run almost entirely by women, and is clearly a space built by and for women. Many of the women who enter Serita’s courtroom are victims of sex trafficking, and most have been arrested in police raids. In a standard legal scenario, people who face prostitution charges either plead guilty or fight the charge—either way, they face serious legal consequences that threaten to disrupt their lives. In Serita’s courtroom, they are offered a third option: they can participate in a state-regulated program that offers to clear their record of the charges if they attend a handful of counseling sessions. Though many of the women arrested are hesitant to start the program because of other obligations that limit their availability, their caseworkers generally push the program, reassuring the women that they aren’t criminals and they don’t want to see them get convicted.
It’s clear from the beginning of the film that the women who work in the courtroom are truly invested in the well-being of their clients. One caseworker, a Chinese immigrant who has lived in the USA for many years, says she does this work because she sees so much of herself in her clients. This precludes a tearful interview she conducts with a young woman who had recently fled China and worked in a massage parlor in New York City briefly before being arrested in a police raid. Another caseworker maintains personal relationships with her clients even after they’ve completed the program and left the courtroom.
The filmmakers tell these women's stories honestly and without bias, painting them neither as helpless victims nor criminals. For that reason, Blowin’ Up is an important film for everyone who wants to better understand what happens to women who face prostitution charges. Still, I think the film missed a crucial opportunity to discuss the role immigration plays in sex trafficking and sex work, as many of the women who enter the courtroom are immigrants. With the current backdrop of failing immigration reform, I’m surprised the filmmakers chose not to expand on this issue. It’s not until the end of the film that the constant threat of ICE presence in around the courtroom is brought up. Furthermore, the filmmakers wait until even later to introduce a handful of hardships that the courtroom faces: an ICE raid, the sudden death of an employee and the relocation of another. It’s not exactly smooth sailing until that point in the film, but the turbulent ending left me wondering how the courtroom recovered, and feeling desperate for closure—which, I suppose, is an indication of how well the film successfully makes the viewer care about these women.
Whether you want to learn more about the real-life consequences of the criminalization of sex work, or simply be inspired by a group of radical women working to change that, Blowin’ Up can provide you with both. Overall, it’s an important film for anyone to see. (4/5)
top photo courtesy of Fork Films
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Elizabeth F. Olson is an editorial intern at BUST. She mostly writes about her experience with mental illness through a feminist lens, and sometimes she writes fiction. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.