April 6, 2019

Doc Star of the Month: Eliza Hook, 'Blowin' Up'

Eliza Hook, from Stephanie Wang-Breal's "Blowin' Up." Courtesy of Once in a Blue

Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Blowin’ Up—the term that sex workers use for leaving one’s pimp—is a surprising slice of cinema vérité, an artistic and nonjudgmental, years-in-the-making look at New York City’s Queens Human Intervention Trafficking Court. Run by Judge Toko Serita and her all-female team, it’s the first of its kind to emphasize the welfare of sex workers over the criminalization of their trade, addressing the root causes of prostitution while providing alternative solutions (but only if that’s what the arrestee wants).

And one remarkable woman providing that respectful, pressure-free help is Eliza Hook, a social worker at GEMS (Girls Educational & Mentoring Services) and court advocate who fiercely puts her clients above all else—even a film shoot.

Documentary spoke with the tireless advocate a few days before the film’s April 5th premiere in New York (the film opens April 12 in Los Angeles).  This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved with GEMS in the first place?

Eliza Hook:  I had moved to New York City, and I really wanted to volunteer my time somewhere. I’ve been in recovery for many years, and part of my recovery is to volunteer, just be of service. So I was trying to volunteer at all these places to help young women, and no one would really give me the time of day for various reasons. But I randomly sent an email out at, like, two in the morning, just frustrated. It somehow got to the executive director of GEMS, who contacted me at, like, four in the morning. Anyway, they ended up hiring me at their safe house. I was basically a house mom for a while. And then I was approached to take over their Alternative to Incarceration program, which I did with full force.

Your clients, just by virtue of the fact that they’ve been hauled into trafficking and intervention court, are all experiencing some of the lowest points in their lives. Which made me curious about what limits you may have placed on Stephanie when it came to filming them. I’m guessing protecting the welfare and the respectful treatment of the clients came before the shoot.

Absolutely. In fact, I probably was mostly a headache for them. The fact that they were able to make the beautiful film that they did was nothing short of a miracle—because I wasn’t the only one that was very protective. Some of the young women who did give them permission to shoot actually asked me if they should do it, and I told them no. But they decided to, so I wanted to be there to make sure that they were protected in that process as well. 

But by that point Stephanie and Carrie [Weprin, the film’s producer] had really gained my trust. It took them a long time. I think it took them eight months to a year to even put a mic on me. I was very unsure of them for quite a while.

I figured it was a long-term shoot, because I didn’t think that people would be as open as they were with Stephanie and the team if she’d only been dropping in for a week and then leaving. 

They sat in that court for close to a year, where they just observed, didn’t even pick up the camera. 

Did you feel that, going in, they had some good questions or knowledge about the court? Or was this just a learning experience for them once they walked in the door?  

I feel like they did their research, and they sat in that court to learn what was going on, and they talked to people. So I think they had a base knowledge. But with filming for so many years, they definitely were experts by the end of it; you can’t really understand it until you experience it.

At any point did you feel that the camera shouldn’t have been there? Did you ever have to put your foot down? 

Not really. I got to know them. But they were also really mindful and thoughtful. They’re intuitive, and wouldn’t just throw a camera in your face without letting you know that they were gonna be there. I didn’t feel like they were disrespectful, not ever. They would always ask.

In terms of your clients, were they all cool with the filming? I’m just trying to put myself in their position, being hauled into court after spending the night in jail, perhaps not even having showered.

Very rarely were any of the young women okay with it. I would say, probably, 90 percent of people were not okay with it. And very rarely did they ever film anyone coming out to court for the first time from being held. Usually the footage you saw was after they had been released, and done sessions, and were put together. I don’t think they ever had access to someone who was just coming straight from the back.

Were you the one who approached the women about filming, or did Stephanie and Carrie approach them?

Both, I think. They would approach, but usually they would ask their caseworker or someone that they trusted to ask them. So I would be, like, “They are asking if they can film you, just want you to think about it. And I don’t think you should do it.” But then they would decide to do it, so I’d be, like, “OK, then I’m gonna be there for all of it, just to make sure.”

But I have a history with filmmakers and the film world, and I just think that Carrie and Stephanie are two of the most talented, thoughtful, badass filmmakers out there. I tell ’em all the time, “I really believe in what you guys do, and I believe in your hearts. You guys are doing this because you have to do it, because it’s who you are. You have to tell a story because you have this urge to do that against all odds, and against what both of your families probably wanted for you. You’re filmmakers and producers—and outstanding human beings.” They changed my jaded, cynical view of “voyeurism,” and the exploitive nature of journalism in those situations. 

You also strike me as someone who values your privacy. I’m wondering if it was difficult to allow Stephanie access to some of the more personal aspects of your life. Why did you decide to let her film you?

I guess because they had put in the time, and I realized that they didn’t really have an agenda. They weren’t coming in with their opinions already formed, wanting to skew things one way or the other. They just lived in the grey. They’re interested in showing a real vérité take on things, and you’re getting to see the underlying parts of the city that no one else would ever get to see.

And I guess, filming my life, that was so much later. I think they just wore me down because they’re good at their jobs.

But you had turned down other journalists or filmmakers in the past?

Not necessarily film, but they wanted to write an article or wanted to further their agenda. Write an op-ed or something for the [New York] Post or The New York Times. I was always, like, “Absolutely not.” I just didn’t participate because the court had been burned so many times by people with opinions about what we were doing—and not really asking the right questions, not really having the right conversations.

You mean they were trying to somehow sensationalize the court? 

Yeah, sensationalize it on both fronts—staunchly anti-trafficking or staunchly pro-sex work, and it never really stopped. It didn’t seem like there was much grey area there—pretty much only wanting to have conversations around exploitation, or pro-sex work and having choice and agency and all these things. Not realizing that there was actually two separate conversations there. I’m actually pro-sex work and anti-trafficking, you know? 

Public perception seems to have this conflation between sex work and human trafficking, when they’re two different issues.

It’s not the same thing at all.

Getting back to the women you served at GEMS, have any of them been to the screenings?

The young woman that I was involved with in the film, Dee, definitely did not want to be involved with the film at all, which I totally understand. I gave her a heads up, let her know that it was coming out, that she was welcome to come if she wanted to, but she was not interested. Only because she had moved forward with her life and didn’t want to revisit those memories, which I totally respect. And then Candy, I think Stephanie and Carrie had contact with her, but I don’t know if she’s attended a screening yet or not. I know she was thinking about it, but I wasn’t there for that decision.

And none of the women showed up to the Tribeca premiere last year?    

None of the women in the film showed up other than the service providers and the judge. 

Which makes me wonder if they’re all okay with it. 

They were at the time when it was filmed. But I don’t know that I would want to show up either because you’ll be in a roomful of people who just know one part of your story, and would assume all kinds of things about you. That’ll be quite uncomfortable, which was my arguing point to the young women. I was, like, “Maybe don’t do this. It might feel weird because people that you don’t know and strangers, lots of them, are gonna have this microscopic view into who you are, or what your life has been like. They’re gonna assume all kinds of crazy shit, and we both know that that doesn’t define you at all.”

Do you wish that they’d gotten a more nuanced view of the women, so they were more fleshed out as characters?  

Absolutely. I wish they could have spent way more time on that, given a clearer picture of who these young women are in the world. But, again, it was about access. They didn’t have access to that. So what you saw is what they had access to.

So is there anything that you wanted to add or get out there?

I just want people to go to the theatrical release, and for Stephanie and Carrie to be wildly successful. They’re just the exception to so many things in my experience.

I do think it all boils down to the respect that they showed, and that you show to your clients.

And they’ve maintained that respect even after they were done shooting. I’m still friends with them. We talk about things other than the film. We are in each others’ lives, so the intimacy that was formed was real, and not contrived while they were shooting. It wasn’t a manipulative intimacy where they were trying to just string people along to get what they wanted from them and then just move on. I used to be such a huge pain in their ass, so the fact that they still put up with me is pretty remarkable. They have so much integrity.


Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.