The Tribeca Film Festival may not have the acclaim or popularity of other, more prominent United States festivals like SXSW or Sundance, but over my years covering it their documentary slates had proven to be among the most socially relevant and important anywhere. Perhaps it’s due to Tribeca’s quantity-over-quality approach to programming where they throw as many films as they can against a wall to see what sticks, but the festival has always been a platform for some of the most immediately timely documentaries anywhere, so much so that the slate has a ripped-from-yesterday’s-headlines feel to it.
There was Craig Atkinson’s criminally overlooked Do Not Resist at the 2016 festival, one of the best looks at the Ferguson Riots and rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement which left me dumbstruck at how quickly they could tell such a timely and effective story. But two new specters haunt this year’s documentary slate, so much so that I’ve noticed them pop their heads into films that have virtually nothing to directly do with either subject: Donald Trump’s presidency and the rise of women’s movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo. To wit, two of the festival’s most powerful and provocative documentaries concern these topics directly. One is about the past, one is about the present; one (mostly) follows the techniques of cinéma vérité, the other delights in Michael Moore-meets-Oliver Stone stylization and provocation; one is about how women serve our government, the other about how our government fails to serve women. But what the films have in common is their focus on how women from all walks of life work within and without the institutionalized structures of American politics to fight back against misogyny, patriarchy, and corruption. They are among the most essential documentaries of 2018’s festival season.
The first is Stephanie Wang-Breal’s remarkable Blowin’ Up, a look at Queens’ Human Trafficking Intervention Court. Due to its high number of massage parlors and prostitution rings, the borough is a hotbed for the illegal human trafficking of Asian sex workers and the exploitation of homegrown African-American and Latina prostitutes. But this Kew Gardens’ courthouse takes an unusual approach to helping these women: mainly, in actually trying to help them instead of just prosecuting them like criminals. The court, presided over by the honorable Judge Toko Serita, a second generation Japanese-American immigrant, actively sees these women as victims in need of help, not felons in need of jail-time.
“This court is not actually interested in looking at you as a criminal,” says Eliza Hook, a legal representative and court liaison for the Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS) program, to a terrified Latina defendant. “Nobody here wants to see you in jail.”
We watch as Serita, Hook, and Kimberly Affronti—the court’s only prosecutor—repeatedly wiggle their way through bureaucratic minutiae, directing these women away from guilty and not guilty pleas towards counseling services and recovery programs, the completion of which expunge the arrests from their records and sets them on a pathway towards social and financial independence and possible citizenship. The three have their methods down almost to a ritualized dance, and witnessing it is awe-inspiring.
Watch how Serita rejiggers one woman’s court date and temporarily seals her case file so it won’t interfere with her interview to enter the US military. Watch how Hook treats her clients like family members, reassuring them with genuine, non-judgmental love in-between hearings. (One of the film’s most illuminating scenes sees her advise one client on how best to screen “clients” and avoid the police as she slowly begins transitioning out of sex work.) For a time, it seems like these women are set to continue transforming the justice system into one more representative of America’s egalitarian virtues. There’s a palpable excitement in the courtroom scenes—they’re the only times I have ever seen people on both sides of the bar seem genuinely happy and energized to be there.
But then things start falling apart. Serita’s elderly father dies, forcing her to travel to Japan for a time to be with her grieving mother. Hook gets another job and moves away from their district. One woman, a backbone of Serita’s system, unexpectedly dies. And the Trump presidency slams into their courtroom like a meteor—in the film’s most disturbing scene we learn about an ICE raid where immigration agents stormed the courtroom while it was in session, arrested rescued sex workers, and deported them back to Asia. The end of the film sees Queens’ Human Trafficking Intervention Court broken, but defiant. There is still much work to be done, and Serita and her fellow judicial warriors are holding the line, even as emboldened police officers choke their docket with massage parlor raids.
There are fewer such heroes in Nancy Schwartzman’s Roll Red Roll, but the few that exist are almost all women going above and beyond their stations. If not for their sense of justice and personal tenacity, it’s almost certain that the notorious Steubenville High School rape case would have gone completely unnoticed in the public eye. The film explores the investigation, public outcry, media frenzy, and court case surrounding the August 2012 sexual assault of an incapacitated minor by two high school football stars in Steubenville, Ohio. The assault was famously documented in excruciating detail on the social media accounts of the various students who attended the three different parties where the Jane Doe was attacked. These videos are horrific. Again and again, they refer to the assault as “rape” and laugh at the “dead girl’s” misfortune.
Predictably, the football-crazed school and community closed ranks on the two players. The case was coldly dismissed as nonsense, local radio personalities blamed the Jane Doe for going to the parties in the first place, and witnesses clammed up when interviewed by local police. Then something extraordinary happened. True crime blogger Alexandria Goddard painfully combed through all the involved students’ social media accounts and reconstructed timelines of the night along with guides describing exactly where each person of interest was located. When she published her findings on her blog, the story rocked Steubenville. Goddard received death threats and was taken to court for defamation. Her meticulous work caught the eye of Cleveland reporter Rachel Dissell whose exposé brought the case to national attention, creating a firestorm on social media and the 24-hour news networks. The case caught the attention of hacktivist collective Anonymous who infiltrated the school’s website and leaked one of the most notorious videos of the students joking about the attack. It all culminated in a massive rally on the steps of the Steubenville courthouse in support of the Jane Doe, with hundreds of protestors wearing Guy Fawkes masks—many of them female—denouncing rape culture with signs and chants seemingly stolen from the 2017 Women’s March.
The film makes abundantly clear that the case could never have been cracked without the aid of Goddard whose investigations outdid those by the police, Dissell whose reporting made the story a national news item, and the countless Anonymous activists of all sexes who mobilized in one of the most significant rape culture protests of the Obama era. Schwartzman is careful to depict the police involved in the case as diligent, honorable professionals tasked with the impossible case of getting confessions from terrified teenagers—but they are still shown as largely ineffective when compared with these women.
Both Blowin’ Up and Roll Red Roll are difficult, occasionally nightmarish looks at the ugliness infecting twenty-first century America, specifically an America torn by a resurgence of noxious Nationalism, anti-immigration rhetoric, and institutionalized misogyny. In other words, Trumpian populism. But they offer hope that women from all walks of life—immigrant women, working class women, LGBTQ+ women, women of color—can still strike back against the evils of the system. Hopefully one day they can save it.