This is Part 2 in a series of posts from members of the All Angels’ community who participated in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Check out Part 1 for the series overview and Bryan Brown’s opening reflection on the film Blowin’ Up.
Ariana Miller & Blowin’ Up
Blowin’ Up is a documentary that embodies the verse “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) It introduces the viewer to a Queens-based trial-diversion program which offers women charged with prostitution and human-trafficking-related crimes the opportunity to avoid trial and have their charges dismissed if they participate in a program designed to help women reflect on their experiences and create an alternative life for themselves.
Being arrested, charged, and brought before a judge is rightly an intimidating and anxiety-invoking prospect. But rather than fear of judgment, the documentary represents the redemptive potential of the law in drawing a line defining what society will not tolerate, the purpose not being to condemn, but to present individuals with the option to choose a better path and providing a guide along that path.
The absence of the men profiting from and taking advantage of the exploitation of these women forms a palpable void in the film and the courtroom it observes. Yet women who found themselves in complicated personal situations marked by desperation which were also exacerbated by their exploitation often seemed resistant to characterizing themselves as victims. One who turned to prostitution to help a jailed boyfriend confessed, “I don’t believe I was human trafficked. I chose to do that.” Another who had paid a large sum to immigrate from China to escape oppressive debt asked herself, “I had been in bad situations before and I never did that. Why do it now?”
Their advocates, rather than manipulating such admissions to induce guilt or shame, probe that emotional awareness to help the women find their deeper, more life-affirming desires. And not far beneath the surface, lie yearnings so simple and sweet that the viewer cannot help but see girlish innocence. Asked where she wanted to be a year from now, one young woman shyly admitted, “I want to be a housewife and have a kid. Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
The trouble, though, was that, regardless of the situations that led to prostitution, once they had entered into it, they found themselves trapped, threatened, and subjected to violence. What seemed like a means to an end quickly became a prison.
Despite the unfairness of women being targeted by law enforcement while their exploiters often remained free, most of the women, had they not been arrested, would have remained vulnerable to those exploiting them. Some had recently arrived to the country, spoke little English and so could easily be kept on the margins of society, unknown, unseen and uncared for. For those who know their cities well, a web of entanglements make it difficult to extricate oneself. Providing the title of the film, one woman emphasized how hard it is to “blow up,” meaning to cut ties on one’s own and leave “the life” behind.
And so, the ability to summon these women before the law provides the opportunity for society to bring them out of the shadows, from the dark alleyways and dim parlors to the sometimes harsh light of an open courtroom where they are seen and heard, supported and even celebrated for choosing goodness. In Blowin’ Up, we are presented with a picture of how law and grace work not in contradiction to one another, but rather in coordination with one another. We see that compassion can come through accountability. And at a time when stories abound of law enforcement and the judicial system being used to undermine lives, this film provides a look at what we might aspire to.
Ariana Miller is a parishioner and vestry member at All Angels’ and an attorney by vocation. She attended a screening of Blowin’ Up with fellow parishioners Bryan Brown and Elam Lantz on Saturday, April 21, the first screening in our lineup.