As individuals we have our own stories, pasts we have overcome, dreams we strive to achieve, and as New Yorkers our story is one of millions. In Blowin’ Up, a new documentary feature from Director Stephanie Wang-Breal, we dive deep into New York’s underbelly to discover some of our fellow residents’ stories, the human accounts behind those dismissed as criminals and the issues they face trying to vanquish a horrid dependence. But most inspirational of all, we follow a passionate few who are relentless in both aiding and caring for those who the rest of us might deem hopeless.
The title of this documentary is also the phrase sex workers use to define their escape from their pimp. The film focuses on women who are mistreated by the criminal justice system and the laws that label them criminals. According to statistics from the Polaris Project, there were 332 cases of human trafficking in New York in 2016 alone. (Contact 888-373-7888 if you believe human trafficking is going on in your neighborhood).
There are two groups of subjects in this feature, those accused of prostitution, and those who champion the justice system: attorneys and a judge who attempt to offer their guidance to the defendants. The screen switches back and forth between these two groups, allowing us equal time to get to know their personalities. We hear horror tales of women new to the country who innocently begin working at massage parlors before being blackmailed into performing sexual favors for customers, or another instance where it is said some members of the NYPD spend time arresting women since it is easier than apprehending the males using their services. It is with these stories in mind the true heroes of Blowin’ Up shine. Attorney Eliza Hook (who works with Girls Educational and Mentoring Services GEMS) and Judge Toko Serita display a kindness one might not expect to see in a court of law.
The court room is a character in and of itself, for it is the basis of the documentary from which all else is derived. This experimental court advocates for the arrested women’s rights and does its upmost to treat them in a respectable fashion. Not only that, it offers this program: Partake in a handful of therapy sessions and once completed, their crime will be stricken from the record six months later. While the inner workings of the court are truly fascinating, I found the individuals themselves to be far more so. Exploring the life of Judge Toko Serita and attorney Eliza Hook’s unrivaled passion to help and tend to the women in her care captivated me to such a degree that when we return to the court I found myself somewhat disappointed. Where the court is the main focus, I feel the people should have taken that mantle.
Blowin’ Up is a character driven piece set close to home about people we probably will never meet. Nevertheless, it makes us admire the humanity in our neighbors and inherit their lust to do better for the strangers around us. No matter how someone may seem on the surface, we never know what has forced them into any given situation, they may just need a helping hand to obtain a better life.
The Spring Creek Sun attended the film’s red-carpet premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival where the director and subjects posed for photos. After the flashing lights had subsided, we spoke with attorney Eliza Hook about the film and her passion for her work.
Spring Creek Sun (SCS): After viewing the film, what are your thoughts on it?
Eliza Hook (EH): Well, I’ve never seen it from that perspective. So I was a little overwhelmed with the chaos of it all because I was in the middle of that chaos. The focus was on the young women that we served; they were the most important. They are actually the stars of the film. [While working,] I’ve never lost perspective of why I showed up [to court] every day—this is actually all very bizarre and absurd for me to be here [at the film festival] because it was never about me at all. It’s about them and their decriminalization because they are not criminals. We do the best we can inside a system that is built on laws that will never legalize prostitution. The film has to do with agency, agency is complicated. There is privilege and what people with privilege think choice is. And there are people that are oppressed and engaged in the finest racial institution ever built, which is the United States Criminal Justice System. If you talk about choice, what does that really look like? So I thought that Director Stephanie Wang-Breal is one of the most remarkable, kind, generous, thoughtful, mindful, people that I’ve ever met and it took about a year-and-a -half to trust that. I’m here to honor her and the young women that I’ve served for eight years.
SCS: Was there anything you thought should have been in the documentary but was not included?
EH: There were about a thousand things that couldn’t be put in the film, but I don’t think we had that kind of time to mention all of them
SCS: How does it feel seeing the film and all of the people you previously worked with?
EH: It is joyful sorrow. It’s bitter sweet. This was the most profound privilege in my life to be trusted and to serve these women who allowed me into their lives. It will probably be the most profound privilege I will ever have in my lifetime. I’m still in contact with a lot of these women who are like my children, and I love them very much with all my heart.
Photos by Dean Moses