Coming to theatres today, Friday, April 5:
Hot Docs, AFI Docs, DMZ Docs, Camden, Big Sky Doc, Hot Springs Doc, Antenna Doc, New Orleans, AFI Fest, San Diego Asian, Martha’s Vineyard
A look at a unique NYC courtroom that assists sex workers and trafficked women.
Judge Toko Serita presides over the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, a courtroom that offers counseling rather than punishment, recognizing that, for many women, coercion has played a key role in their involvement in sex work. Taking a largely observational approach, Wang-Breal drops the viewer in the midst of the courtroom activity without any immediate context, making for an initially disorienting experience that in some ways matches the perspective of the largely undocumented Asian defendants that face Serita’s bench. Soon enough, it’s clear that the film will be focusing on the women who make the courtroom work, rather than on individual defendants – though brief testimony and counseling sessions with the latter are heard. The bulk of the doc’s time is spent within the court with Serita and other dedicated figures, including Assistant District Attorney Kim Affronti and, most notably, Eliza Hook, a counselor from partner organization GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) as they serve a truly positive and effective role in trafficked women’s lives as the latter try to leave the life (the meaning of the film’s title). If the film makes a slight misstep, it’s in following some of these subjects outside of the court, such as an extended thread involving Serita’s sick father, as a means to round them out further, something that, while admirable, ultimately feels unnecessary and too disconnected from the film’s true focus. Beyond that minor issue, Wang-Breal crafts a compelling and largely inspiring portrait – though the spectre of a newly-elected Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants late in the film tempers the mood somewhat.