Compassion isn’t a term usually associated with the criminal justice system, but that’s exactly what’s meted out to individuals appearing on prostitution charges in Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court (QHTIC). Director Stephanie Wang-Breal’s “Blowin’ Up” presents the inner workings of this unique judicial institution, where everyone strives toward a common goal: getting at-risk offenders back on the straight and narrow. With intimate access and a sharp eye for small details and big ideas, it’s an eye-opening documentary that deserves an audience during its limited theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles.
The title of Wang-Breal’s film (which first premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) refers to the process of severing ties with a pimp — and, often, the entire sex-worker life. “Blowin’ Up” offers testimony from different women about their experiences attempting to make that break. Yet the film’s real subjects are the various empathetic people associated with QHTIC. Presiding over this courtroom is Judge Toko Serita, who speaks to the accused with a friendliness and understanding that’s startling, and which is reciprocated by those standing before her bench. That brand of nonjudgmental benevolence is similarly exhibited by Assistant District Attorney Kim Affronti, who’s open to collaborating with not only defense lawyers but, just as crucially, representatives from court partner organizations such as Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), Garden of Hope, and Sanctuary for Families.
The defendants depicted in “Blowin’ Up” are African-American and Asian, and the latter group — many in the U.S. illegally and in trouble for working in Chinatown massage parlors — are so heavily represented at QHTIC that translators are a fixture of this bustling milieu. Also omnipresent are thoughtful counselors like GEMS’ Eliza Hook, whose efforts on behalf of clients are as heartfelt and genuine as her professional relationship with Judge Serita and district attorneys is productive and convivial. These advocates operate as teammates instead of adversaries, and together they do everything in their power to avoid prosecuting the sex workers that appear here, instead endeavoring to get them into counseling programs that, if successfully completed, will result in dropped charges and expunged records.
It’s a novel approach that prizes rehabilitation and support over punishment, which makes sense considering how many of the women spotlighted in “Blowin’ Up” are victims of exploitation (physical violence, denial of ID and passports, etc.) by their pimps or employers. Such abuse is detailed by one young girl who recounts her rocky journey from China to America, where mounting debts and coercion compelled her to reluctantly accept a massage-parlor job — a vocation she could stomach for only four days, albeit not before (as implied by her participation in counseling sessions) it landed her in legal hot water.
Cinematographer Erik Shirai likes to get his camera close to subjects’ faces (sometimes obscuring their eyes for privacy purposes), capturing moments of unadorned fear and consummate kindness both in the court and its adjacent hallways. Meanwhile, scenes involving Judge Serita dealing with an ailing father, and counselor Hook preparing to move from New York, help further the film’s larger portrait of people coping with transitions into unknown futures. It’s an idea that courses throughout “Blowin’ Up,” and peaks with a post-Trump-election conclusion — replete with ICE agents storming the court to apprehend undocumented immigrants — that suggests a happy ending to this inspiring story is far from guaranteed.