Kandie
Photo: Erik Shirai

“It’s called blowin’ up when you leave your pimp ... so I blew up,” Kandie says, standing tall and brown in the New York sunshine. Her bangs blow in the breeze, and a pretty but awkward smile seems to reflexively creep around the edges of her mouth as she matter-of-factly describes how she got into “the life,” and the brutality she’s faced within it—and in attempting to leave it.

In fact, almost everything Kandie says sounds matter-of-fact—from the beatings she’s survived to how she’s ultimately hoping to beat the odds. There is neither apology nor emotional investment as she explains the reality of her situation. “Life is hard,” she says. It’s clear that’s been true for her for a very long time.

Kandie is one of the heroines—yes, heroines—of Blowin’ Up, a documentary that made its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It focuses on a groundbreaking criminal court in Queens, N.Y., less than 15 miles away from the celebrity sightings and premieres of Manhattan.

There, another of Blowin’ Up’s heroines, Judge Toko Serita, presides over a court that’s not interested in criminalizing the defendants who come before the bench to be arraigned for prostitution—most of whom are black, Latina, undocumented Asian immigrants and transgender youths. Instead, with the help of a deeply compassionate team of social workers and lawyers, Serita’s collaborative courtroom offers a chance to start over.

With the help of partner organizations including Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, Garden of Hope and Sanctuary for Families, the defendants who appear before Serita’s bench are offered an alternative to both prison and the lifestyle, via a treatment program that allows their records to be dismissed and sealed six months after completion. In some cases, educational and even minor financial support is offered to those making the effort to escape the trap of prostitution and sex trafficking.

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But in fact, in Blowin’ Up, the words “prostitute” or “sex worker”are rarely, if ever, used—especially not in Serita’s courtroom. Instead, she asks each defendant how they’re doing, offering a humanizing experience to those often targeted by predators and the criminal-justice system alike.

On the decision to allow the film’s creators—director Stephanie Wang-Breal and producer Carrie Weprin—into her courtroom, Serita, the first Japanese-American judge appointed to a New York state court and the daughter of immigrants, said in a press release:

They were coming from a feminist perspective but it wasn’t a judgmental or ideological one concerning prostitution and sex trafficking. ... By portraying some of the defendant/participants in a nonjudgmental, dignified way, it really does put a ‘human face’ to trafficking survivors and sex workers because they are perpetually dehumanized and vilified. It is also a film that forces you to think about what prostitution and sex trafficking is because it doesn’t rely upon the typical images you see of sex workers or trafficking victims. The reality is much more complicated and nuanced.

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Blowin’ Up follows several black and Chinese defendants, as well as Serita and passionately dedicated GEMS counselor Eliza Hook, through the chaos of the courts and their lives beyond it. Aside from the defendants, the court itself is predominantly female, from Serita herself to the many social workers and lawyers attempting to change the outcome for the hundreds of at-risk defendants who cross their paths each day.

And the change can be astounding, even in the minimum of five counseling sessions that each defendant is required to complete. When one young woman re-enters Serita’s court to request an early sealing of her records to ensure that she’s eligible to receive financial aid for college, the courtroom bursts into applause. It’s a deeply moving moment in a film that seeks to bring compassion to some of the most marginalized among us. Said director Wang-Breal:

When you think about the criminal-justice system, you think about men and the mass incarceration of men. This was a courtroom full of women, and it’s about the mass incarceration of women and the inequities and intersectional issues that bring them into the system. ...

I was struck by the idea that in the same courtroom, you have this black young woman and this older Chinese woman, who have such disparate paths in life and come from such different backgrounds. Yet they have so many similarities as well, in terms of their life stories, in terms of how they got here, in terms of what they want out of life.