Imitation of Choice looks at sex work, prostitution and human trafficking through the lens of New York State's criminal justice system. The film captures the growing pains of our nation's first human trafficking intervention court in Queens, New York, and how we define trafficking and prostitution from many different perspectives: the criminal justice system, the social welfare system, and, most importantly, the women and girls who are at the center of it all.
Imitation of Choice (Working Title) is the story of an innovative human trafficking court, the compassionate 53-year-old Japanese-American judge who runs it, and the women who pass through its doors every day. Arrested in police raids for prostitution-related offenses, the women in Judge Toko Serita’s court are presented with three options: plead guilty to a criminal offense, fight the charge, or take the state’s offer to attend a handful of counseling sessions and get their record wiped clean. The women occupying the benches of the courtroom are a mix of undocumented Asian women and young Black and Latina girls. They arrive in the courtroom as defendants in criminal cases, confused and scared. None of them immediately identify as victims. Instead, out in the hallway where they confer with their social workers and defense attorneys about their options, these women voice their anger and mistrust of the arresting officer and the charges that have been brought against them. When it comes time to stand before Judge Serita, however, most of the women agree to participate in the counseling sessions, with service providers like GEMS, Garden of Hope and Sanctuary for Families. During these sessions, some women identify as victims of trafficking and actively seek the court’s aid in applying for a T (trafficking) visa or access to safe housing, while others don’t define themselves as victims – whether out of fear, shame or choice. Through raw and intimate cinema-vérité storytelling, Imitation of Choice invites audiences across the country to witness the promise and the problems revealed in Judge Serita’s courtroom. With the courtroom serving as the backbone of the film, our cameras will weave in and out of the space and into the counseling sessions, immigration services and private moments with the defendants and stakeholders. In the conference rooms of the service providers we witness the journey many defendants take in order to survive. Conversely, we witness the confusion and mistrust the defendants face as they’re forced to work within the confines of a criminal justice system that still sees them as criminals. Through these collective stories, the film thus fixes the lens on a central dilemma: Can New York’s celebrated court address the problems of the most vulnerable members of society: women & girls of color, victims of abuse & poverty, foster kids and undocumented immigrants?