April 11, 2019 at 10:38 am PDT | by John Paul King
Movie review:’Blowin’ Up’ prostitution stereotypes

Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen and Liron Ben Shlush in ‘Working Woman.’ (Photo courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

The intersectionality between women’s issues and those facing LGBT people is something that has rarely gotten much attention on the big screen, but with increased sharing of long-ignored experience and stories within our common cultural spaces has come a growing awareness of just how much they have in common.

In April, a trio of movies that focus on the plight of women in a world weighted by tradition against them will be gracing screens in L.A., offering three distinct opportunities to contemplate the commonalities of these two widely diverse communities and foster a sense of solidarity between two groups that can only be stronger when united in common cause.

The first of these is “Blowin’ Up” (out today), a documentary exploring the criminalization of sex work and its devastating effect on an entire, diverse segment of the female population.  It looks at the United States’ first problem-solving court around prostitution — created in Queens County, N.Y., in 2004, and presided over by the Honorable Toko Serita — as it attempts to redress the way women and young girls arrested for prostitution are shuffled through the criminal justice system. 

With unparalleled access to the workings of the court, director Stephanie Wang-Breal captures what it feels like to go through these criminal proceedings as a female defendant and reveals how the overwhelming majority of women arrested are undocumented Asian immigrants, black, Latina and transgender youth. She lets us hear directly from these women in their own words and helps us begin to understand the complex scenarios that bring them into the courtroom. As the film progresses and a new administration takes over in the White House in 2016, the courtroom’s fragile ecosystem is tested and the fates of those who pass through become less certain.

Though the film was conceived and shot before the SESTA/FOSTA act was signed into law by the Trump administration, relegating millions of sex workers of all genders who had empowered themselves through the internet back to the potential dangers of returning to the streets to make their living, Wang-Breal reveals, through her candid and intimate coverage, how legally encoded stigmatization creates existential hardship not just for women in general, but for a diverse array of populations within that larger community.

Another film, “Working Woman” (also out today), is an Israeli drama from filmmaker Michal Aviad that explores the #MeToo experience through the perspective of Orna, (Liron Ben Shlush), a mother of three young children with a husband struggling to start his own restaurant. Returning to the workplace to help support her family, she lands a job with a former army superior (Menashe Noy) who is now a successful real estate developer. As Orna embraces her new position and tries to balance its demands with her home life, she begins to experience escalating sexual harassment from her boss and her increasing financial success seems tied parallel a pattern of predatory behavior that ultimately brings her career and marital relationship to the brink. 

Aviad, known as a longtime feminist, has created a provocative and politically charged film that finds strength in the nuances of its layered story. Through complex performances and well-crafted writing (Aviad collaborated with Sharon Azulay Eyal on the screenplay), her movie unfolds in little moments that paint a compelling portrait of sexual harassment and the devastation it wreaks on three entangled characters, finally building with precision to a surprising ending. Though its story is about a straight woman, the situation it addresses is all too common for LGBT people and strikes a universal chord of recognition that makes it hard not to find an access point into its humane and empathetic look at the subject.

Timely and devastating, this thoughtful and penetrating look at the toxic effects of a culture that commodifies sexuality in the workplace made waves at both the Jerusalem and Toronto International Film Festivals, as well as festivals in Warsaw, Chicago and Philadelphia. It’s in Hebrew with subtitles.

Finally, in “Red Joan” (out April 19), the formidable Judi Dench stars as an elderly widow living out a quiet retirement in the suburbs when she is arrested by the British Secret Service and charged with treason for decades of sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet government. Based on the true story of a woman who was exposed and named as a “traitor” by the Secret Service in 2000, the movie reveals the dramatic events that shaped her life and beliefs, from her days challenging sexist expectations as a physics student at Cambridge, through the tumult and heartbreak of an affair with a dashing political radical, to the devastation of World War II and the atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia which came in its wake.  

Judi Dench in ‘Red Joan.’ (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

As directed by British theater legend Trevor Nunn, who draws on his stage-born instincts for finding the human drama at the heart of a story, it’s a movie that functions as both political thriller and romantic melodrama. Nunn, working from a screenplay by Lindsay Shapero, interweaves Joan’s present-day scenes as she struggles to defend herself to her interrogators with the flashback saga of her becoming the longest-active Soviet agent in the U.K. Building the narrative of both timelines together serves to illuminate the conflicts between patriotism and idealism, love and duty, and courage and betrayal, that ultimately inspire Joan to risk everything in pursuit of world peace over nationalist politics, ultimately framing her as a woman who spent a lifetime being underestimated while quietly changing the course of history.

Dench is, of course, riveting as the lifelong spy caught at last, effectively making the case for the noble intentions behind Joan’s choice to “betray” her country, but it’s Sophie Cookson, who stars as the younger Joan, that brings to life the passion that makes them feel like truth. Together, they convey the strength and perseverance it takes for a woman to endure, much less triumph, in a male-dominated world that insists on seeing her only as secretary, wife, mother or grandmother.

It’s also worth noting, without giving anything away, that the movie features a crucial subplot involving Joan’s friendship with a gay man who’s closeted by necessity in a country where homosexuality is deemed a criminal offense. By offering a glimpse at how living under an oppressive system often pits should-be allies against one another, “Red Joan” adds a layer of observation that seems particularly apt within our current political climate.

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