‘I see myself in them’: the documentary that humanizes sex workers

In Blowin Up, the women who end up at Americas first problem-solving court focused on prostitution are treated with care and respect

You cant just walk away, says Kandie, as she describes the reality of what its like to leave a pimp. There is no just walking away. In walking away and leaving her exploiter behind, she blew up, a phrase used by Emmy nominated film-maker Stephanie Wang-Breal in her new documentary Blowin Up. In it, she spotlights the stories of women working in the sex industry with the groundbreaking court they enter after being arrested: Queens human trafficking intervention court.

There are so many films that have been made about prostitution and I think that theres a stereotypical narrative that goes with that kind of film-making, Wang-Breal said to the Guardian. I definitely did not want to do that.

By focusing on the aforementioned court (the first problem-solving court focused on prostitution created in the US) and the judge who presides over it, Toko Serita, Blowin Up does offer a unique narrative.

Coming together over the course of two years, the film emphasizes the subtleties of human trafficking: the coercion, the manipulation and the vast variety of reasons why women enter into illegal sex work. Kandie fell in because she needed money for her boyfriends cash bail and another found herself working at a massage parlor because she wanted to pay off a debt. No story is similar, and this is intentional. I really wanted to give them a chance to show their perspective on their lives, Wang-Breal said. I think thats one of the powers of this film.

The film forgives where so many depictions do not, allowing the audience to see the girls for what they are: girls. Avoiding dehumanizing cliches, instead were presented with the minutiae of their day-to-day lives as well as court proceedings that prioritise authenticity over construction. When people think about the criminal justice system, they think of it as a highly procedural, nonhuman place full of men, Wang-Breal said. This room is the paradox of that. Its full of humanity, full of laughter, full of women. Other than the bailiffs and the occasional translator, no man has a speaking part in the film.

Its this femininity that drew Wang-Breal to the court to begin with. She first happened upon it in a newspaper profile and was drawn to its unconventional style and characters. It was a courtroom that was run by women and on top of it, it was a courtroom that was run by women of color, said Wang-Breal.

Serita initially refused the idea of her involvement. I laughed! she said to the Guardian. I said: Sure, go ahead. You can film in the courtroom, but not with me! She confessed it took nearly a year to gain her approval, but her trust in Wang-Breal comes alive onscreen, as do the profound connections between defendants and the administrators of the court. In the hands of someone else, God knows what it would have looked like on the screen! she adds.

Like the collaboration of Serita and Wang-Breal, the court takes a similar altruistic approach to the defendants, trying to serve those that appear in it. What we try to do is engage in harm reduction and to try to figure out what the needs are of the various women that we serve, Serita said, making those who help in the court so necessary. I could not see the court functioning effectively without the participation and involvement of these various service provider organizations. Theyre the ones that do the hard work of connecting with these women, of developing relationships with them, working with them, etc. The court really relies on their participation.

But previous victims werent so lucky. Prior to the opening of the court, Serita describes a grimmer picture of the defendants. They were treated in a very, very dehumanizing manner, and no one was recognizing the degree of trauma, she said. The reason why this court was created was really to right a wrong, to address the contradictions in the legal system in terms of further punishing what we knew to be individuals who were being exploited and victimized in the commercial sex trade.

Toko Serita in Blowin Up Photograph: Once in a Blue

Throughout the duration of Blowin Up, we see the court becoming more progressive. It became the human trafficking intervention court as a way to place emphasis on the fact that there were trafficking victims in the court system that were not being recognized as such, Serita said. There, the victims are not forced into a revolving door system of the street to prison pipeline and instead, theyre given alternatives to help get away from it through service programs that provide opportunities for rehabilitation.

Theres a concern in the film that the system might regress when, after the 2016 election, immigration was made a headline issue. Wang-Breal speculates had they begun filming after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the entire film might not have come to be. I think that if the filming had taken place later we wouldnt have had anyone really willing to participate in the filming because the risk and dangers of participating in a project like this would have been even greater, she says. Serita is more optimistic. While she admits that around four or five people have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) after leaving the court, it hasnt completely deterred defendants from coming in the first place.

Blowin Up champions collaboration, whether it be behind the camera or in court. Wang-Breal declares that it is the strength of the film. One of the things that I love about my job as a director is that I get invited into these peoples homes, into these peoples lives, into these peoples stories through my work, she said. For me, I look at my film-making process as a collaborative process.

In the film, all of the defendants, the service providers, prosecutors and Serita all take a hand in doing so for the greater good, acknowledging that help is the first step. Susan Liu, a service provider of the Garden of Hope, says in the film: I see myself in them. Somehow, I feel like we are the same. I mean, I pray a lot and I feel like my prayers, many of the requests I make to God are the same requests of the women, their wishes when they tell me in session. [I want] somebody to love me, somebody who will never abandon me, somewhere safe, stable housing. Basic, basic things like in normal peoples lives. They just want that! And I want that too. Every person wants that.

  • Blowin Up is out in the US now

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/apr/10/blowin-up-documentary-sex-workers-court

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