“No one here wants to see you in jail,” Eliza Hook tells a fragile young woman outside of the courtroom of the Honorable Toko Serita (seen above) during a scene in “Blowin’ Up.” “That’s why you’re in this court.”
For the women who find themselves at the trafficking and intervention court in Queens, these words might sound like hollow reassurance when they’ve been let down so many times before, typically facing prostitution charges that have been birthed from police raids to pad arrest stats and given little recourse but to accept a plea so as not to add to their already precarious financial situation, with most also in fear of jeopardizing their immigration status. (The film takes its title from the slang term for ditching one’s pimp.) Yet Hook’s sincerity shines through, and by the time she says this in Stephanie Wang Breal’s astonishing new film, you’ve accepted yourself that there’s something very special about Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens, a place of true justice as all the officers of the court have come to a pact to look at legal issues with an eye more towards rehabilitation than punishment.
Rather than automatically arriving at a prison sentence as a quick fix when it so often contributes to a vicious cycle for the defendants, Judge Serita is shown asking more questions about what they plan to do instead of they stand accused of, scheduling court dates around job interviews and showing patience with all manner of women in front of her, whose first language often isn’t English. Hook isn’t even a defense attorney, but rather a social worker with GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), an organization that helps women trying to transition out of prostitution, who plays a crucial role at the court explaining the progress of the women she takes under her wing, and the prosecution and defense regularly consult with each other to come to practical ways forward in the cases that come across the bench.
In observing this unique court that places so much emphasis on the human factor, “Blowin’ Up” does as well to an impressive degree, with Wang Breal spending just enough time with a multitude of women to convey their experiences in a meaningful way, illuminating how many women are lured from foreign countries under false pretenses to become sex workers, their passports or other tools for mobility held as ransom for acquiescence and pimps rarely receive the same consequences, allowing the system to persist. This sophistication and sensitivity runs throughout every aspect of the film, from the way editor Jonathan Oppenheim builds personal accounts from all sides of the law into a cohesive portrait of an institution built to address a reality that the laws on the books have yet to catch up with, and cinematographer Erik Shirai constantly finding unique ways to frame the film’s delicate subjects from just the right angle.
It’s a devastating film well before reaching its final third when the future of the entire enterprise is thrown into doubt, but Wang Breal handles the last minute twists and turns to reassert how extraordinary it is to see something innovative work exactly the way it should when people with opposing viewpoints can buy into something that will serve all parties. To watch “Blowin’ Up” is both exhilarating and infuriating as it depicts such a hole in our collective social fabric and holds up a beautiful tapestry of strong women to the light, suggesting a way forward. The result is brilliant in every way.
“Blowin’ Up” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22nd at 3 pm at the Regal Battery Park, April 23rd at 5:15 pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea and April 25th at 5:15 pm at the Regal Battery Park.