“Americans Love the Story of Saving People”: Stephanie Wang-Breal on Her Complex Prostitution Doc, Blowin’ Up
“Americans love the story of saving people,” filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal (Wo ai ni mommy, Tough Love) tells us when discussing her film Blowin’ Up, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Set within the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, the documentary explores the lives of various women involved with sex work and prostitution, dropping its audience into this complex subject matter and wasting no time explaining what’s going on or introducing its characters. Wang-Breal wants you to feel as emotionally connected to the subjects’ circumstances as possible. Many of them live in the unknown, fearing arrest and/or deportation each day. But the filmmaker, who’s explored the lives of Asian Women and the foster care system in her previous work, assured us that many of the people helping these women aren’t necessarily “saving anyone” either. The issue of sex work and the legal system is a convoluted one, and the dilemma at hand is more about humanizing and decriminalizing those involved “in the life” rather than saving them.
Blowin Up’ focuses on Japanese-American Judge Toko Serita; Eliza Hook, a GEMS counselor (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, an advocacy group); and various undocumented Asian immigrants and sex workers. Wang-Breal and her producer Carrie Wepren spent ten months in the courthouse before ever bringing in a camera, their ability to form trusting relationships illustrated through these intimate portraits. The film garners its name from Kandie, a woman who tells Wang-Breal that’s she’s recently left her pimp — a term coined “blowin up.” Unlike some of the other women, she’s chosen this life — but again, “choice” is a loaded word. The economic state of America and its treatment of women influences just how much of a “choice” they really have.
Wang-Breal spoke with us about keeping the film objective, without judgement, and asking questions around human-trafficking and sex work solutions rather than answering them. Often letting the circumstances dictate the aesthetic of the film, her team was able to craft a story that feels both provoking, unsettling and also crucial in the landscape of 2018. “This is our time to be talking about this.”
Filmmaker: On April 11, Trump signed a combination of bills passed by the House and Senate into law — the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). Do you feel like this is similar to The War on Drugs, except that here the government is targeting women, trans and gay people and essentially the criminalization of sex work? It feels very timely that Blowin Up’ premiered shortly after.
Wang-Breal: There’s a huge dialogue around that law. I’m more comfortable talking about whether that law helps or hinders sex workers. There’s a spectrum of sex workers, women who are empowered and who use Backpage to do their business, just like Craigslist is a form of advertising for antique dealers. It’s enabled them to secure clients and do it the way they need to. I understand how this law is going to make it harder and more unsafe for them to continue doing their work. Then on the other side of the spectrum are vulnerable combinations of women and especially children — that’s their focus. I’m talking about those who don’t have the agency or the choice — for them, [the law] is good in that sense. What I tried to do with [Blowin’ Up] is to show this spectrum of choice. In this courtroom, you don’t see high level, highly paid white escort workers being arrested. This courtroom is serving a population of women who are being targeted by the police: black, Latina, transgender youth and undocumented Asian women. Kandie even said, “I went out on my own. I blew up.” She gives us a sense of her agency, which I love. But she was targeted. I tried to show all the different perspectives. How do we define agency for these women?
Filmmaker: And through that, I felt the film was humanizing a subject like sex work that has such a stigma around it. Your past work accomplished that as well, dealing with Asian women and the foster care system. And here, you’re still exploring a systematic issue. Why do these subjects fascinate you and how did you decide to tackle sex work?
Wang-Breal: I’m fascinated by the institutions and what they mean. What I’m trying to do is subvert the idea of an institution by looking at the people that live and breath inside of them. Then, when I heard about this courtroom I thought, this is so interesting. I never knew that these two populations of women could come together in this kind of way. I read an article in the New York Times about it and I forwarded it to my producer Carrie Wepren and said that we should hop on the F train and go check it out. And we did. When I saw all the women in the courtroom, I’d never seen anything like it — women helping and challenging women. But I said to [Carrie] that I was intimidated by taking on this subject matter and I didn’t want to represent just one side. Not only that, it’s been done so poorly in terms of the stereotypical history of prostitution and the way women are treated, filmed and framed. I said if we do this, let’s take all those creative challenges of not representing them that way and then take the issue and elevate it, figure out an artistic way of bringing people into the story.
Filmmaker: The girls are already living in fear, and this is such a safe space. Can you speak to the conversations you had with these women and how you were able to gain trust?
Wang-Breal: It’s interesting you point that out because Eliza was saying to everyone in the Q&A that it’s amazing we made this because no one wanted to be in this film. Every single scene in the film was a discussion, even outside of the courtroom. Eliza said she advised her clients not to participate. [She told them] you don’t know what’s going to happen in the long run, but if you want to, if you feel like it’s going to be good for you then you should do it. People have a lot of fear and shame, not all, but there was a lot for my team and I to take on — a responsibility in making sure we handled all the concerns with great, great care. Carrie and I spent 10 months inside that space before we were given the approval by everyone in court to bring in the cameras. Then, every morning we were there I would make an announcement in front of the whole court and speak in Mandarin and in English and announce what we were doing and that every single person had a choice whether or not to be in the film. It took a lot of patience and discussions. We did reenactments first of transcripts because we never thought we’d get an Asian woman who would let us film her. About a year into filming, Susan, the counselor, said, “I think I found someone who would want to be in it but I want you to come in and meet her without any cameras and discuss with her how she’s willing to be filmed so it’s a collaborative process.” Before the shoot actually happened, we scouted a location — we weren’t allowed to film in the actual location because they were afraid that any signs of that location would give people an idea of where they are. We set up a counseling room and [shot] again in an artistic way where the cameras were not in her face, but far away so they could do their business. This made them comfortable and able to be honest and authentic without me guiding or pushing.
Filmmaker: Did you let the circumstances dictate the aesthetic of the film? You were working a lot within certain parameters.
Wang-Breal: For me, the first part of the film is verite, and we really documented everything that was going on. And then act two was guided by the challenges of how to fully represent these women in a way that also captured the intimacy of the conversations. I used those creative challenges as a guiding point for how we artificially elevated these women and showed them in a light we don’t normally see.
Filmmaker: And you’ve referenced Robert Altman as an inspiration for the visuals as well?
Wang-Breal: In the beginning, Carrie and I would trail Eliza or Lee or Susan in and out of the courtroom and listen to their conversations and they’d tell their clients that we were trying to learn about the space and what’s going on — is it okay if she listens to this conversation? And some women would say no, and some would say yes. During that time, I felt like wow, if I can make the viewer feel like they’ve been dropped in the space, like a Robert Altman film where you’re getting a whisper of a conversation in the corner and then back in the courtroom, getting the procedure stuff going on — it’s this chaotic orchestra that’s happening where real cases are being processed. It’s so confusing for the defendant, and I really wanted to make the audience do the work just like the defendant does. [You’re] walking into the space and figuring out what’s going on, who these people are and what’s about to happen.
Filmmaker: There’s a conversation Eliza has with Kandie that stands out to me after her trial. She basically says that if Kandie is going to out and do this again, she understands. I had to check myself, because initially I was thinking why would you go do this again? You’re being given another chance. But then, oh, wait, you don’t have a choice. There’s a lot of duality in that struggle. What were your perceptions of this dichotomy and how it evolved over the course of making the film?
Wang-Breal: I love that moment. We’re in this criminal justice system where everyone thinks it’s just about rehabilitation. Americans love the story of saving people and that these women are saving people. Here, Eliza isn’t saving anyone. She’s saying, “I know you’re going to go back out there so let’s come up with a plan to make it safe for you.” She’s not bringing her judgement to the table; that’s not her job. That’s what I was trying to do with this whole film. Take what you want from each moment and come up your own conclusions about how you feel about all this. We’re presenting to you material, people, backgrounds and stories that you’ve never heard before. One of the reasons why I wanted to make a film about this space is because everyone has different dilemmas. To me, that’s storytelling and making people question how we, as a society, judge these women and whether or not we should be checking ourselves.
Filmmaker: There’s one scene that really embodies this. One of the women discusses that when she moved to the U.S., girls she knew in the life were making $1,000 in a night and that was two months salary for her. It sounded like a solution. Is it then that we need more jobs for these women or some form of decriminalization? I know the film asks those questions in an open-ended manner, but I wonder what your thoughts are after having such an intimate experience with this subject?
Wang-Breal: I really wish that this court didn’t exist and these women weren’t criminalized in the first place. And that they were given access to treatment programs like economic empowerment, training, English as second language. Our collective society doesn’t care. I try to make New York a character in the film because women are invisible to us. We don’t care about them. Arresting these women and putting them through this program is just adding unnecessary stress to their lives. In the end of the film, for the undocumented Asian women, if you don’t show up for your update that’s another criminal offense where there’s a warrant for your arrest. Why would I show up when I know that ICE is coming over there and deporting my friends and when I did nothing wrong in the first place? It’s all so overwhelming and traumatic for them. Judge Serita and Eliza have also said this — if this court didn’t exist, that would be great. However, the reality is prostitution will most likely never be legalized in this country. So, what’s a solution that’s not this court to change the way that we treat and profile women and young girls who are possibly in the life or doing unlicensed massage?
Filmmaker: It’s such a complex issue. I hope that people see the film and want to be involved in any of these types of programs. Have you had any discussions with people who have come up to you after the film?
Wang-Breal: Definitely people have asked. We always say that if you know anyone important in city council or the government to talk to them about housing. There are not enough beds or shelters that are specifically designated for victims of human trafficking or women who are trying to escape an abusive relationship or domestic violence survivors. Also, economic employment opportunity. I always say to people, if you have a music internship or work in fashion, go work with these women, do a training program with them. But understand that if they don’t show up on time, that’s okay. They have never had that kind of structure in their life, so you also need to be given some cultural training to work with them. There’s a mutual exchange of learning that needs to take place. Also, just in terms of this film, this is a film made by women and about women. This is our time to be talking about this. Right now, like you said, considering the law that just passed and then also the #metoo and #timesup movement, look at what’s going on in our own backyard.