Blowin' Up


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Kandie in Blowin' Up
"A refreshing look at the realities of a world that most people have strong opinions on but few really know much about." | Photo: Erik Shirai

Prostitution is illegal in every US state except Nevada, yet yet the country has an estimated two million prostitutes and some 15 percent of its male citizens have paid for sex. Who benefits from all of this? It's a multi-billion dollar industry but with 90 percent of the women involved dependent on pimps, very little of the money ends up in their hands. They're also the ones most likely to be arrested, and the ones to have criminal records it's even harder to get out. Blowin' up, as one working girl describes that process, is also likely to result in a beating, and pimps often hold onto their passports and other vital documents. With the police generally unsympathetic and sometimes exploitative, what can they do?

Stephanie Wang-Breal's documentary takes us inside a courthouse in Queens County, New York, which is trying to do something different. Presided over by judge Toko Serita, it's dedicated not to punishing criminals but to finding solutions. When sex workers are brought before her, Serita directs them to independent services which aim to give them back some control over their lives.

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Losing control is, for most of those we meet, something that happened a long time before they went into sex work. For the most part, they are people with existing vulnerabilities, born into poverty. Many are immigrants living in constant fear of deportation, members of ethnic minorities who struggle to find alternative employment that pays an adequate wage, or trans people desperately saving up for surgery. Some, by their own account, are just really bad at managing money. They don't have a great deal of faith in people who offer to help them, some having experienced repeat exploitation and abuse by those they turned to for help in the past. Half the job of the service providers we meet is persuading them to engage.

Quiet, calm and non-judgemental, this is a refreshing look at the realities of a world that most people have strong opinions on but few really know much about. It lets sex workers speak for themselves - and not just the educated, socially approved ones. We meet translators who are working to help trafficked women express the realities of their situations and the overwhelming experience of being in a strange country where the only people one knows turn out to be abusive. And although it's not stated directly, we can also see that some of the women are comfortable with doing sex work, or at least would be if only they could keep a fair share of their earnings and avoid the violence that generally goes along with it.

For viewers already familiar with the industry, this will be familiar stuff, but it's quite something to see it onscreen. Despite the New York focus, many of the sex workers' experiences are universal. Familiar, too, is the hard work edged with despair of the women trying to help them. It's complicated by their awareness that the wider political climate may make it still harder to do this kind of work. There is a significant possibility that the situation will get even worse.

Though it offers no easy answers, Blowin' Up reaches out in search of empathy and compassion. It's a much needed film.

Reviewed on: 12 Apr 2019
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In a courtroom in Queens, women facing prostitution charges may earn a chance at redemption thanks to an experimental programme. Documentary.

Director: Stephanie Wang-Breal

Writer: Stephanie Wang-Breal

Year: 2018

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2018

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