In her new documentary Blowin’ Up, filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal invites us into Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court: an experimental court system that aims to challenge the presentation of sex workers as criminals. The individuals who appear here are mostly women who have been arrested during police raids of massage parlours or found through sex work adverts.
Rather than going through the traditional US legal system, the sex workers appear in front of Judge Toko Serita, a sympathetic and understanding figure who offers them three options: they can plead guilty, not guilty, or undergo a set of counselling sessions. If they choose the counselling option all charges are dismissed and the record of their arrest sealed.
Unsurprisingly, both the judge and the social workers supporting the women through the process encourage option three.
Across the film we explore the system through multiple points of view: hearing from Judge Serita, head of the court Eliza Hook, and community members who have made themselves available to support those on trial. But Wang-Breal prioritises the voices of the women on trial at the centre of this project.
"When we first talked about doing this film, we talked about not approaching the subject matter in a way that’s been done before and I felt like this courtroom let us look [at sex work] through another lens," she told VICE.
The result is a more textured account of sex work than we often see. The women at the heart of the documentary share how their work intersects with the law, police, fears of deportation, and family. Wang-Breal reflects: "The women created an environment that was non-confrontational. It shows what happens when we have a space like that and how it serves the community better."
After she was granted access to the courtroom, Wang-Breal was mindful of her responsibility to present the women accurately and allow for an ongoing dialogue between subjects and filmmakers.
"Once you get access into the courtroom it doesn’t mean you have access to the women. We would meet the girls and talk with them about the possibilities, what they would not and would let us do, what made them comfortable, what made them uncomfortable. We collaborated on this together as much as possible."
Blowin’ Up presents many perspectives on sex work: personal accounts span tales of abuse from pimps, to women seeing it as a way to make money quickly. But the director is always conscious of not imposing her own point of view or message.
"I try to humanise the women as much as possible because in the environment they’re seen as defendants who have committed a crime," she says. "I wanted to take away that label as much as possible and show that these are girls and women who just want the same things we all want."
Despite not setting out to make a statement, the final product does end up commenting on what traditional institutions can look like when they’re allowed to be female spaces—spaces where women’s experiences are prioritised.
"These women defied those rules that you typically see on television or read in the news and media," Wang-Breal concludes. "They defy those rules and what we expect of a prosecutor or of a social worker or of a judge.
"That’s what happens when women run the show."