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How Varda and Wiseman Inspired the Powerful Sex Work Documentary ‘Blowin’ Up’

Filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal discusses her immersive portrait of a sex trafficking courtroom in Queens — the first of its kind.

Judge Toko Serita in “Blowin’ Up”

Tribeca

Stephanie Wang-Breal did not set out to make another social issue film, but when she stumbled on a New York Times article about a Queens courtroom that treated sex workers as victims rather than criminals, her documentary filmmaker instincts kicked in.

“It combines two populations of women that [I’ve] made films about for the last eight years,” Wang-Breal said, describing her initial reaction to the story. “Asian women — Asian women immigrants, specifically — and youth who are coming out of the foster care system. Her previous two features, “Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You, Mommy)” and “Tough Love,” were both released by PBS’s lauded non-fiction series POV. What’s more, the courtroom was led by an Asian woman, Judge Toko Serita. “Which is just something that is very attractive to me as an Asian female filmmaker.”

Set primarily inside the courtroom (and the hallways right outside), “Blowin’ Up” follows the daily proceedings of the country’s first court dedicated to changing the way the justice system handles and views prostitution charges. Even its name, the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, is an effort to connect the dots for lawmakers that some sex workers are victims of human trafficking. According to the Center for Court Innovation, “rather than fines and jail time, new approaches are addressing the problems — such as trauma, abuse, and drug addiction — that force many adults and children to engage in prostitution.”

After “Tough Love,” which dealt with children in the foster care system, Wang-Breal and producer Carrie Weprin were cautious about tackling another lightning rod issue.

“I wasn’t making a film about prostitution. I was making a film about this courtroom that was dealing with the subject matter of prostitution,” she said. “We didn’t want to make another really hardcore social issue film, because it’s really challenging both in terms of helping these people but also dealing with the afterlife. … I said, ‘the only way we should do this is if we’re gonna do it really differently.’ For me, that approach had to be super artistic to get people to understand this world.”

Rather than get into the weeds of an issue about which even the most passionate advocates don’t always agree, Wang-Breal kept the focus inside the courtroom — and on its naturally compelling central figures.

“Hearing these women’s stories is so different from the dilemma that the judge is experiencing, versus [social worker] Eliza [Hook] versus the defendant. Each of our dilemmas are different because we’re bringing our own values, our own life experiences to it,” said Wang-Breal. “The only way I can touch on those different dilemmas is [to make] a Robert Altman-esque type film where you’re just sitting there observing and touching on all these many conversations that are all taking place simultaneously while real bureaucracy is taking place.”

Stephanie Wang-Breal

Courtesy of the filmmaker

There are a few other cinematic forebears apparent in this transporting film. Some critics have compared “Blowin’ Up” to a Frederick Wiseman film.

“I do feel like the beginning is very Wiseman-esque, but I depart from his work in the sense that I give the people in my stories more agency than he does. He remains a detached observer, where I become more and more attached,” she said. “I take it to a feminine level of, ‘I want to know more about you beyond this immersive quality.’ I want to take it beyond that wall.”

“Blowin’ Up” evokes a very immediate, day-in-the-life quality, and one that is indelibly rooted in the humans on the other side of the camera. By allowing the viewer to get as close to these women’s daily realities as possible, Wang-Breal makes it impossible not to empathize with their struggles.

“I think my work is somewhat similar to Agnès Varda’s, in the sort of reflective space of society. Not telling people how to think about other people, but showing them who these people are in the world, and how they exist, without adding much fanfare or anything else, besides highlighting their incredible lives and the circumstances they are in,” she added.

An effective storytelling technique, this tactic also allows the film to side-step taking any firm political stance. “Blowin’ Up” remains decidedly neutral in its point of view; simply one of an impartial observer inside one courtroom. The film portrays Judge Serita as a largely benevolent but firm guiding hand, and the court as a humane port in the otherwise cruel storm of the criminal justice system.

But in 2014, sex worker advocacy group the Red Umbrella Project released a study finding the system “plagued with structural discrimination, including the racial disparities ingrained in the justice system,” using an approach which “ignores complex social factors that lead people into the commercial sex trade.”

“As Eliza [Hook] and Judge Serita have both said, ‘This is an imperfect solution. We don’t want this place to really exist but it does and it’s better than not existing. … How can we help them in this intermediate phase that we’re in?,'” said Wang-Breal. “We’re not going to legalize prostitution in this country overnight or even maybe in the next 10 years. … It’s not easy to say that this is the solution. That’s not at all what I’m advocating and that’s not at all what the court’s advocating. It’s a look at a solution that exists that isn’t perfect that is filled humanity.”

The first few screenings of “Blowin’ Up” will be followed by a series of talkbacks on various topics addressed in the film, including “Fosta-Sesta, One Year Later: How Has the Closing of Backpage Affected Sex Workers?,” “Demystifying the Asian Massage Parlor,” and “ICE in the Courts & Beyond.”

Once in a Blue will release “Blowin’ Up” theatrically in New York on April 5 and Los Angeles on April 12.

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