Despite its explosive name, the sounds in the documentary “Blowin’ Up” are fairly soft. They’re the whispers between judge and lawyers, the counseling of clients in a busy court hallway or the hushed confessions of trauma from survivor to therapist. The movie avoids sensationalized courtroom moments in favor of a more sobering yet sometimes hopeful story.
“Blowin’ Up” captures one of America’s first courtrooms aimed at reevaluating human trafficking cases. Established in 2004, the purpose of the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court (HTIC) – which looks no different than any other courtroom – is to give women charged with prostitution another chance.
Instead of punishing the accused like most other courts, Judge Toko Serita hears their cases and offers the women resources and help.
Director Stephanie Wang-Breal first learned about these legal efforts through a 2014 New York Times article commemorating the court’s 10th anniversary.
A number of the women who pass through the courtroom are undocumented immigrants from Latin America and Asia, an especially vulnerable population who also likely needed help with immigration laws.
Kandie, one of the women interviewed in the film, explains that the phrase “blowin’ up” refers to the dangerous time when a sex worker stops working for her pimp. She readily shares her of experience of being lured and locked into sex work. Her case ends up in Serita’s Queens County courtroom, and she becomes one of the judge’s latest stories of hope.
Kandie’s case is just one of four we see play out over the course of the documentary. Some identities are hidden, others only share little details about their experiences.
While “Blowin’ Up” feels deeply personal, it also gives an impression of how big the problem of sex trafficking is. We cannot see the full scope and size of the issue, and its something no single courtroom can handle. Serita is doing her part to reform the way the criminal system treats the women charged with prostitution. She refuses to use the terms “prostitution” and “sex worker” in her courtroom to make the women feel less victimized.
In another scene, the judge consults another group eager to adopt her methods to help sex trafficking victims instead of jailing or deporting them. Serita explains that it isn’t always easy to spot which women were coerced or threatened into sex work. In some of the massage parlor cases she’s handled, the women are not threatened with physical violence but essentially blackmail. The people in control of their situation may withhold their immigration documents or threaten to tell their families and communities back home about their misdeeds.
Serita is not the only person in the documentary working to address the mistreatment of sex trafficking victims. Eliza Hook from Girls Educational and Mentoring Services is another positive force in the lives of many of these women. She looks out for her clients in a way that’s direct and caring. Often, Hook counsels them on what to do next, and how she can help them even after their court case is done. It’s advocates like her who help women get out of “the life” for good.
Audio cues let us know the documentary was filmed before, during and after the 2016 elections. Serita is open about her concerns about the new administration’s crackdown on immigration, as it will affect the undocumented women coming forward to report abuse. Near the end of “Blowin’ Up” is a radio report that the court had been raided by immigration officials.
Visually, the documentary is gorgeously shot, capturing two sides of the city: the romanticized lights and bustle of the city clashing against the dingy spots where these women were robbed of their agency and the bland courtrooms where their fates are decided.