In 2014, the New York Times profiled a court in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, called the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court. As the Times put it, the court’s aim is to “change the legal conversation around the multibillion-dollar sex trade by redefining the women in it as victims instead of criminals.”
The New York City court deals with people (mostly women) apprehended on prostitution-related charges. Instead of treating the defendants like criminals, the judges, lawyers, and advocates work to connect them with services that can help them if they wish to leave “the life,” or if they have been trafficked into sex work — which is the case for many, a number of whom were Asian and undocumented. Most also ended up taking part in a number of counseling sessions, after which their cases were sealed.
Presiding over the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court is Judge Toko Serita, and after the 2014 article was published, documentarian Stephanie Wang-Breal wanted to observe Serita’s courthouse with a camera in hand. Serita’s approach — focusing on rehabilitation and on helping women who had been trafficked, without treating them as criminals — seemed like a worthy subject for a documentary. So she and her producer Carrie Weprin spent 10 months watching and gaining trust, and then eventually began shooting.
The result is Blowin’ Up, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018 and begins its theatrical run at the Quad Cinema in New York on Friday, April 5. (The name, as we find out from one of the subjects of the film, comes from the term for leaving your pimp.) The film works in a few modes — sometimes recalling the observational style of a filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, sometimes using interviews with women who prefer to remain anonymous — and has many characters, nearly all of whom are women. We get to know Serita, some of the defendants, the lawyers, and several advocates from organizations that help both trafficked people and those who want to leave sex work but lack the resources.
The film is a wide-angle view of not just Serita’s courtroom, but also of the culture surrounding her work, drawing in conversations about sex work and immigration — the latter of which becomes more complicated after ICE begins to show up. And it’s also inspiring, if somber. There are clearly no easy answers to the complex issues the film raises.
Shortly before Blowin’ Up’s theatrical release, I spoke by phone to Serita and Wang-Breal about the court and the film. We spoke about the female-centric space the court has become, the ways the filmmakers approached some tricky issues, and what their hopes for the future are. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Toko, what makes your work at the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court different from other ways of working with women apprehended for prostitution-related charges?
I preside over these three different treatment courts in Queens criminal court: drug court, mental health court, and also the human trafficking intervention court. The human trafficking intervention court was designed specifically to address the contradiction that we were facing in the criminal justice system.
We were arresting people on prostitution-related charges, but coming to understand that many of the people were either being trafficked, or being victimized and commercially exploited in the commercial sex trade. And so, rather than further criminalizing them, we try to connect them to services and assist in meeting their needs for a variety of different services.
It was also equally important to resolve their cases with noncriminal disposition. So we’re attempting to provide an alternative to an incarceration program. Most of the women who come through the court system are engaged in those services for a very, very short period of time, usually five to seven sessions, and then their cases are eventually dismissed. We try not to take pleas, we try not to convict anybody on prostitution charges, et cetera.
To the extent we can use the courts and the criminal justice system in a positive way to redress some of the issues these women are facing, then that’s what we’ll attempt to do.
What kind of issues are women who show up in your courtroom often facing?
We deal mostly with women of color, with black and Latina domestic defendants. We have a large percentage of foreign-born women who are Asian and undocumented. And within the past year or so, we’ve been seeing an increasing number of transgender Latina defendants who have been arrested on prostitution-related charges.
The types of issues we see run the gamut. But they usually involve issues such as housing, lack of employment opportunities, sexual assault, or sexual abuse history. A lot of them are also very traumatized, dealing with different types of chronic trauma and abuse, substance abuse issues, and mental health issues. This is a population that is very marginalized, and very much in need of intervention.
And how did you end up getting involved?
I’ve always been involved in women’s issues, and I didn’t think that there was necessarily a place for that when I became a criminal court judge. But I was looking at the work of one of my colleagues, Fernando Camacho, a Latino judge who was out in Queens working with trafficked minors. He’s the one who really started this program. I thought, “This is something I would really love to do in Brooklyn,” where I was a criminal court judge.
It just so happened that he was elevated to another position in Supreme Court, and a position became available. I went to Queens to carry on and expand upon his work.
These are issues that I’ve always been interested in. So it’s a great opportunity to really dive in and see what I could do to effect some kind of a change.
How many women come through your court?
The courts have been in existence since 2004, and I think we have had something like over 6,000 defendants coming through the court.
We used to see on average around 600 defendants a year, but in the past two years, there’s been a real marked decrease in the number of women being arrested. That’s because of a change in NYPD policy in the past two years. So right now I would say we have about 150 women on our docket.
It’s clear in the film what a sensitive place your courtroom is, due to the nature of the issues the women are often facing. Stephanie, it must have been a challenge to make the movie. How did you get started?
I actually read an article in the New York Times in 2014 written by Liz Robbins. After reading that article, I was really fascinated, because it triggered a bunch of different points of interest for me.
One was that this courtroom was dealing with a population of undocumented Asian woman. I’m first generation Chinese-American.
Two, a lot of the girls coming through are also coming from the foster care system. My last film was about the child welfare system.
And then three, that the initiative was being led by this renegade Japanese woman [both women chuckle]. We are really good friends now, so I can say that. There’s a woman judge leading this court that’s dealing with prostitution. And what does “prostitution” mean when they’re also talking about “human trafficking?” How are these words being interchanged? What do these words mean, and what does it mean when these cases are being vacated? What does all that look like? Where are these women coming from?
I was really fascinated by all of the dilemmas and issues and ideas that this one space encapsulated. So after reading the article, I called my producer, Carrie Weprin, and said, “We should to hop on the F train and head down to the court and see what’s going on.” And so we did.
We were amazed as soon as we walked into the room — this really was a space completely occupied by women, and mostly women of color.
In fact, one of the first times we were there, one of the Mandarin-speaking defendants asked me who her lawyer was, in Chinese. I told her that I didn’t know, and that she might need to talk to someone else. I was just here as an observer. She looked at me like, “What are you talking about?”
I just knew, after being there and seeing it with my own eyes, witnessing all the different conversations and interactions and personalities that were inside this place, that this was something really interesting and unheard of and unusual, and that it could potentially be a great place to make a film.
It is really striking, when you’re watching the film, to see that the court is almost entirely populated by women: the defendants, the lawyers, the advocates, and the judges. Was that what you were expecting going in?
No, I wasn’t expecting that. I had no idea that even the court officers were women. I expected most of the court officers to be men, so that was shocking to us. When you think of the criminal justice system, you don’t exactly think of it as this space full of women. So right now, all the conversations are about the mass incarceration of men — and here the mass incarceration of women is also happening.
Toko, is that female-centric space deliberate? And does it have an effect on the defendants?
I think this question is really fascinating, because I’ve always taken that for granted. I like being surrounded by women. I take a lot of energy and inspiration from the work of the women around me. And ours is a very, very collaborative effort.
So people often say, “Walking into your court is very, very different than walking into other courts, even other trafficking courts.” I think it’s because of the particular vibe, the bonding that takes place among the service providers. They’re very friendly with one another. So this is something that I haven’t tried to cultivate consciously, but it’s something that really works for the court, for everybody involved. And so it’s something that we don’t take for granted and that we are able to appreciate.
I also think it makes a tremendous difference for the defendants as they enter the courtroom. I placed a real emphasis on having the service providers physically appear in court as court advocates. I recognize how vulnerable many of these defendants are and how overwhelming it is to be a criminal defendant, in this process that they know nothing about, and that, for the most part, they are really powerless in the face of. And so anything that we can do to alleviate their fear and their stress, to connect them to a service provider, is something that is definitely deliberate.
That part is something that we seek to develop. We call it being trauma-informed — having a trauma-informed courtroom — which is really a recognition that most people who come into my courtroom are facing different forms of trauma. We need to be sensitive to that fact.
Some of that seems to be undercut near the end of the film by outside circumstances — specifically, the sudden fears that arrived when the Trump administration’s immigration policies and ICE’s presence affect the way you’re doing your work. [Note: Near the end of the film, ICE agents come to the court, and defendants, some of whom were trafficked, fear apprehension and possible deportation if they leave.] Has that change continued, and what kind of an emotional toll has it taken on defendants and people working in the courtroom?
I think it’s stressful for everybody involved. I don’t think that there’s been any significant changes. One of the things that I became aware of was that the ICE agents who had approached the individuals weren’t aware that they were approaching a human trafficking intervention court. Since that time, we have not had a repeat of that incident.
But it’s not to say that defendants have not been apprehended or detained by ICE. It just has not happened in court. It’s a very difficult situation. I think that defense attorneys and immigration attorneys probably face a lot of challenges dealing with this issue — much more than courts directly.
Stephanie, it feels like you’re threading a delicate needle with this film — you’re trying, on the one hand, to be respectful to the women who say that they chose a life as a sex worker, while also showing how the court works with all of the defendants, including those who were trafficked against their wills. How did you think about making the film in order to include all of those components?
I knew that one sex worker or woman defendant would not be able to sustain the narrative of an entire film, because I would be asking them too much. And I knew that I didn’t want to do that to anyone — put that pressure on them, since they had so much stuff going on in their lives already.
It took us 10 months to get final approval from the judge to bring our cameras in, so I also knew that I wanted to make this a portrait of a system. That was the only way for me to touch upon all the different dilemmas and the different perspectives represented within this space.
When we first started talking about filming in the courtroom, Eliza Hook, the counselor who’s in the film, pulled me aside and said, “I hope you don’t make this film only about the Asian women.” That’s what the narrative is out there about trafficking — that there is no domestic trafficking taking place, and that some of these girls are sex workers and they have all agency that they want. But some of these girls are just being trafficked across the block from where they grew up in Brooklyn.
I said that, for me as a filmmaker, I took that responsibility to heart. But I also said that it’s not up to me. I’m here with my cameras documenting as much as I can, but it’s not up to me who wants to participate and collaborate with me. It all depends on who’s going to be willing and courageous, feeling that they want their story told.
I structured the film in three acts. The first act is fully immersive. I wanted to put the viewer in the shoes of a defendant, coming into this space for the very first time. All the conversations, all the actions, all the strangers they encounter, all of it is taking place simultaneously. During some rough-cut screenings, people said, “Oh, you need to add context and ID people — it’s too confusing.”
And I said that that’s exactly what it’s like for people coming into this place; I don’t want to talk down to the audience and guide them. I want them to figure out who they identify with and whose stories that they want to know more about. If I were to tell you who these women on screen are, then I might create a hierarchy to them.
So I really wanted to just sit the audience in this space and make them figure out what’s going on. That’s exactly how I experienced it, and that’s exactly how all of these female defendants experience it.
In act two, I wanted to unpack their stories. That’s when we start to hear from the defendants themselves: where they come from, what their understanding is of the courtroom through their counseling sessions.
Then, in act three, I wanted to break down who the women working in this space are. For instance, Judge Serita has two parents who are radical artists and totally not the typical Asian parents — how does that influence her work?
I wanted to look at this multidimensional woman who is a judge from 9 to 5, but also has this other life, and existence, and personality in Japanese that we don’t get to see [in the courtroom]. I really wanted to show the multi-dimensionality of the women who are working in service of the court as well. So that became act three.
Then ICE happened. We had no idea that was going to happen; we started this project in 2014, and at that moment, we believed that Hillary Clinton was going to be our next president. We had no idea what turn our nation was taking. That was a blessing and a curse, for the film. What we already thought was challenging for this court was magnified 100 times.
You can feel a kind of deflation or heaviness near the end. To that point, the film shows people doing difficult work, but the changes in immigration policy and the increased presence of ICE suddenly makes it feel impossible. But it’s an encouraging and inspiring film, too — it reminds you that there are people on the ground paying attention to the stories behind the headlines. Did you see your own perceptions of the world shift as you were working on the film, Stephanie?
Yes. I always say how lucky I am to be a director. One thing that I love about what I get to do is I get invited into people’s homes, into people’s lives, into sharing their stories. It’s a huge privilege that I don’t take for granted, how they’re willing to take me on their journey and share with me what their life options and choices have looked like.
So, my notions of sex work have completely been challenged throughout the making of this film. I particularly loved when we heard from [one of the film’s subjects,] Candy. She told me straight out that she’s not a victim of trafficking — that she does this of her own choice.
One thing that people say to me after screenings is how challenging this film must have been to make. And, yes, this was an incredibly challenging film to make on multiple levels. But not because of the women. I think that the women also taught me how resilient and strong they all are — powerful, in their own way. We all have this power in us, if we could just see it, and not be told that it’s not our own.
I learned so much from these women on a both professional and personal level that I’m so grateful for, and for my daughter, too. I can pass these ideas and this openness and awareness to her and the next generation of women, who could watch this film and have a more nuanced understanding of all of these words we use to describe these women, when there’s so much more to them than just words.
Toko, what do you hope for these women for the future? What would you ideally love to see happen in the world, maybe even as a result of the film?
I would like to see justice for sex workers, for trafficking victims, for everybody who engages in this work but is deprived of their humanity, is deprived of their human rights, is deprived of self-determination. That’s my goal. I think this film opens up much-needed dialogues about all of these various issues.
But the place that I’m coming from, from a criminal justice perspective, is the need to look at what we are doing to women and girls in the justice system, and the ways in which racism and sexism play out in the way that we dehumanize the female defendants that come before us. That’s a situation that I would like to see change.
Blowin’ Up opens in New York on April 5 and Los Angeles on April 12.