“The Whistleblower” film sharpens issues on sex-trafficking at the UN
Lisa A. Phillips – WNN Reviews
UPDATED: 2 September, 2011
(WNN) BOSNIA: In 1999, Kathryn Bolkovac, a single mother from Nebraska and a seasoned cop, joined the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia, a country still in tumult after its brutal civil war. Her job was to investigate the sex trafficking of young women from Eastern Europe. Once she began collecting evidence from the victims she discovered that a number of U.N. officers – the very people who were supposed to be keeping the rule of law – were themselves playing part in prostitution rings.
Bolkovac told her employers, the American company DynCorp, what was going on. Instead of being lauded for her investigative acumen she lost her job. Her findings were considered bad public relations for the lucrative rebuilding effort.
After a two-year legal battle in England, where the DynCorp office that dealt with peacekeeping related contracts in Bosnia was based, a tribunal ruled that Boklovac was unfairly dismissed, thereby clearing her name.
Bolkovac’s saga and the plight of the victims of sex trafficking in Bosnia periodically made headlines in England and Eastern Europe. At the time, the international community had largely turned its attention away from Bosnia where the fallibility of the peacekeeping force seemed inconsequential. In comparison, the well-documented horrors of the rapes, sniper fire and ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian civil war out-weighed the media’s interests.
The new feature film, The Whistleblower, based on Bolkovac’s book and personal story, will likely change that. With shocking graphic scenes of the rape, torture and exploitation of the women caught up in the sex trade, The Whistleblower is an unsparing revved up docu-dramatization of what Bolkovac uncovered – and her colleagues’ efforts to keep her findings buried.
After release of the information, Amnesty International outlined a detailed, controversial and informative report, “Hopes Betrayed,” in November 2002, pointing out corruption as the base of many of the problems.
Taking us from a wild party in Kiev where Irka (Ravisa Kondracki) in the film convinces her best friend Raya (Roxana Condurache) to take a job at a foreign hotel “just for a few months,” The Whistleblower brings us to the gruesome ‘Florida Bar’ in Sarajevo where the two friends become co-victims of heartless Bosnian pimps and U.N. peacekeepers. Here the very people meant to enforce the rule of law not only leer at the subjugation of women but also profit from it with hush money.
Enter Bolkovac, played by Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz, as a twice-divorced police investigator in Lincoln, Nebraska who is so in love with her work that her ex-husband has been awarded primary custody of her daughter. When the husband takes a job in another state, Bolkovac tries to get transferred to be near her teenage daughter. When no transfer comes, Bolkovac makes a bold decision to take a high-paying job as a U.N. peacekeeper for a year instead. Her plan is to get ahead financially so she can move back and closer to her daughter again.
But Bolkovac is soon too committed to view her work as a ‘just money’ job. The elegant and dedicated Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), who is head of the Women’s Rights and Gender Unit at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, takes notice and makes Bolkovac head of gender affairs in Bosnia.
Bolkovac is soon hot on the trail of a prostitution ring and its U.N. enablers as she promises that after her job she will return back to the U.S. and her daughter. The subtext here is that Bolkovac sacrifices her own family life to ‘mother’ other young women – not much older than her daughter – who need her more. But these thematic subtleties fade quickly as the film kicks into high ‘thriller’ mode.
Bolkovac is in a clear battle of good versus evil and there’s little room for nuance. Riding on the question of whether Bolkovac can nab the bad guys and set the girls free, first time filmmaker Larysa Kondracki’s direction tends toward the overwrought. Weisz at times acts like a righteous sheriff in a Western standing up to the bad guys in their dark ‘saloon of sin.’ The camera pans around Bolkovac dizzyingly as she loads crucial evidence into a duffle bag. When a raid on the prostitution ring fails Bolkovac becomes histrionic beating her fists against her enemies’ chests.
“The international community has been loathe to deal with the involvement of peacekeepers in the sex trade, even though the market they represent has been a key factor driving the expansion of exploitation,” said the real Madeleine Rees in a report for OCHA – United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ publication ReliefWeb in March 2003. “Bosnia shows that simply sending guilty peacekeepers home is not enough; what is needed is a robust position from the very moment of deployment. The international community needs to take its responsibilities seriously, and not allow the immunity of international personnel to become impunity in practice,” she continued.
Kondracki’s high intensity approach with her film does have a powerful impact. She exposes a dark moment in the history of international peacekeeping as an urgent message in a world that tends to romanticize U.N. intervention as salvation. The prostitution rings of Bosnia were, and are not, an isolated case. U.N. peacekeepers have been linked with rape, sex trafficking and sexual misconduct in many other regions including: Liberia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Burundi and Sierra Leone.
In one disturbing scene Irka’s friend, Raya, is beaten severely for daring to speak to investigators as the other women in the brothel are forced to watch. The pain and desperation on Raya’s face and the horror in Irka’s eyes – she is the one who started this after all – speak volumes about what one U.N. official in the film earlier had dismissed as a mere matter of ‘morality.’
The film succeeds in its intensity here. We could never get so close to the real life victims sequestered by fear, shame and anonymity.
Since the release of the film the top level at the United Nations has been cautious. The Office of the Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has been slow to respond to seeing the film but has recently released a statement after an official viewing at the U.N. saying that the issue is important and must be one that shows “zero tolerance.” Secretary Ban’s office has also communicated to filmmaker Larysa Kondracki that they now have plans to organize a screening with a date for the film to be seen by all member states of the General Assembly.
Previous to this in late July 2011, global woman’s advocate Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile and Executive Director at UN Women – the new super-agency for women at the United Nations – who supports a policy of more female peacekeepers working throughout the global United Nations system, arranged a private screening in an office building at the U.N.
Although The Whistleblower is a film with a heavy hand it doesn’t have to be that way. One need only recall Rachel Weisz’s Academy Award-winning performance in another whistleblower film, The Constant Gardener, to realize that good art and a strong social message can be compatible.
“There is a line in (the book) the Whistleblower which for me, says it all; ‘We have a system here that works, but for who?’ The film is a wonderful thriller, has a powerful message and is not an easy film to watch. Yes there was a system (in Bosnia) but it missed absolutely what was really going on,” said Rees in a recent interview with WNN.
“The strongest aspect of this story is that it is true! Not everything happened exactly to those people (depicted in the film), but it happened. It took us too long, much too long to get the UN to respond and to take it seriously. The attitude of ‘boys will be boys’ prevailed and women were the victims. Still not enough has been done and I hope that the message of ending impunity for the horrors that were inflicted will be heard and acted upon,” added Rees.
Undoubtedly accomplishing Kondracki’s mission of thrusting the link between sex trafficking and peacekeeping back into the international spotlight, The Whistleblower also gives Bolkovac, who has been living quietly in The Netherlands since DynCorp dismissed her, her rightful place in the history of people brave enough to resist their employers as they risk their jobs for a higher calling in exposing a great wrong.
Inspired by actual events this docudrama stars Academy Award® winner Rachel Weisz, acting as Kathy an American police officer who takes a job working as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia. Her expectations of helping to rebuild a devastated country are dashed when she uncovers a dangerous reality of corruption, cover-up and intrigue surrounding the sex-trafficking of women in Bosnia. Directed by first time filmmaker Larysa Kondracki, the film also stars Academy Award winner Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci and Academy Award nominee David Strathairn.
For more information on U.N. Peacekeepers and involvement with sex-trafficking in Bosnia see this short 2011 report by advocate for women living in The Balkans, Jeleana Posevski, via PeaceWomen and the 2008 report U.N. Responses To Sexual Abuse by Muna Ndulo from UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law.
WNN reviewer Lisa A. Phillips is a freelance writer, journalist, and the author of “Public Radio: Behind the Voices.” She’s written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Time Out New York Kids and other publications. A former award-winning radio reporter, she has also done audio production work for The New York Times online multimedia. Phillips currently contributes film and book reviews for a nationally syndicated women’s issues show and has reported stories for NPR – National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Marketplace.” She teaches journalism and radio reporting at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
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