SFIFF – Interview with the Director of The Whistleblower, Lisa Kondracki
Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower was one of the most talked about films about SFIFF 54. I personally loved the film, read my review here. It’s a powerful potrait of human-trafficking and government cover ups that took place in Bosnia in the early 2000s. It’s gritty and compelling, and you should definitely check it out. Larysa sat down with me to discuss her film. Here’s what she had to say.
BFR: First off, congratulations. I loved your film, it was very powerful.
LK: Oh good!
Can you talk about how you found this story?
Sure. I’m Ukrainian-Canadian. I was born in Toronto, but my mother was born in Ukraine. It’s a huge community. And one of the things people were talking about there was sex-trafficking. Probably before you really even knew what it was, there was just this epidemic coming out of Ukraine. Then a journalist named Victor Malarek wrote a book called The Natashas which was a really great expose of what’s really happening. Then, I kind of knew I wanted to make a film about the subject matter. I guess I knew it was going to take a lot of research, and once I started that, that’s how I found Kathy’s [Bolkovac] story. And that’s when it really exploded and it wasn’t just about sex-trafficking, it was about the U.N.’s involvement, as well as American private militaries, but also international peacekeeping forces from different countries coming in.
I realized that instead of focusing on supply, which I think a lot of media had been doing, to really look, to take the film from the point of view of demand. It was amazing, it was something that needed to be done. And Kathy’s story was so incredibly compelling. I found her email online. I wrote her a letter. She wrote me back. I think a lot of European companies had approached her. But she’d been in trial for two years, so she kind of couldn’t talk about it. And I think I randomly happened to email her the week after the trial ended or something. She gave me her number, we spoke, and Eilis [Kirwan, co-writer] and I flew over a few weeks later [Bolkovac lives in the Netherlands] and met her. For one hundred dollars she gave me her life rights. We talked, I said I’ll do your movie properly. It’s going to take time, I have no money. But I’m committed. Yeah, so Eilis and I spent two years traveling and writing the script, researching in Europe, whittling all the stories down down down.
So this is an issue that you heard about by word of mouth beforehand?
Do you have a lot of family still in Ukraine?
Right now, no. I mean, we have distant family. But my actual close relatives are in Canada. My father was born in Canada even though he’s Ukrainian. I went to Ukrainian school, the community was completely Ukrainian. Until I went to grade 7, a private girls’ school in downtown Toronto, Ukrainian was our first language. So you felt like you were Ukrainian.
I knew you had Ukrainian roots beforehand, which made the opening scene which takes place in Ukraine particularly interesting to me. I wondered if anybody in your family, or if you knew anybody that was personally affected by human-trafficking?
No, never. Thankfully, no.
So you worked with the real Kathy Bolkovac, can you explain a little bit about her story?
Kathy was very instrumental in the whole seven years that we did this. I mean, she was very available to us, she was happy to show the true side, not just the hero part. You know, she was with a guy, she had kids that were still in the United States, these things that I don’t judge. but it is something I think some people will find difficult to understand. But it was important to her to show the whole story, not just the valiant woman who went on a crusade.
Basically, she’s a mother of three. Actually, in the film we only have one kid. She had three kids, but by the time she was thinking about going to Bosnia, two of her kids were already in college. So she had one fifteen year old girl. It was tough for her, but she was supporting her family and here was this great opportunity to make some money, and I think it was supposed to be a short stint. She said one of the toughest things for her was getting pictures in an email of her daughter in her prom dress. She also said ‘I’m not a soccer mom, that’s not who I am. I’m going to be a parent by example.’ Her daughter came to the premiere in Toronto and she was absolutely thrilled. So she went over there with the idea she was joining an elite task force. She was a police officer in Nebraska. But because she started a little late, at twenty eight, it was a smaller force and there wasn’t room to move up. And, you know, she was about to turn forty, she had broken her collarbone in a fight, and she sort of thought this would be a way to see a different part of the world and just do some policing.
Pretty much, the second she got there, and this is something we sort of had to create, a narrative discovery process, it was pretty obvious. I think even before she got there, in training camp, there were some guys talking about this. It wasn’t so much relegated to the brothels in the mountains the way the film shows. These girls were everywhere. Madelaine Rees, who Vanessa Redgrave plays, told me that the coffee shop that was closest to her, where she bought her lunch every day had a bed upstairs with a girl. So it was much more prevelant than we show. Without taking that liberty, there kind of would be no film for you to go through because I think it’s so unbelievable when you’re watching this that you kind of have to slow it down. Even for Kathy, even though she saw it personally, she had to process what she was seeing. I think what’s great about her is that she’s so relatable as a person, and definitely the way Rachel [Weisz] plays her who’s amazing, she has this relatability. So when you’re going through this movie, you’re really going through it as if you were seeing it through Kathy’s eyes. And I think people go, well what would I do? Would I shut up and keep taking my paycheck?
That is a lovely part of the film, that we don’t really see things as an omniscient audience, we discover things slowly as Kathy does. So what did Kathy think of the film?
She loved it, and she would tell me the truth! She doesn’t mince words. We were sitting with her in Toronto, sort of right besides her which was tough because this was her first viewing with fifteen hundred people. She’s kind of prides herself on being a cop, but I could see there was a bit of moisture in her eyes. She looked at me and said, “you nailed it.” And that really meant a lot.
Did you actually shot in Bosnia?
No, we shot in Romania. Thankfully, Sarajevo has been rebuilt, so we shot in Romania. Bosnia doesn’t really have a film infrastructure. We were on a very limited film budget, even though we had all these amazing pros working on the film. But these people definitely weren’t there for the paycheck. Romania has a very film-friendly industry there. They shoot a lot things like Underworld at studios there.
Did you build a lot of sets? Or was it all on location?
We didn’t build anything, no. A lot of it is on location. Some of the stuff in the beginning, the stuff in Nebraska, we found stuff that just passed as American, although if you were to move the camera an inch to one side or an inch to the other, you’d see it’s definitely not.
Oh wow, so it was all done in Romania?
It was all done in Romania except the inside of the U.N. building which we shot in Toronto. Because Romanian architecture is very influenced by communist architecture and even North Korean architecture, to the naked eye, it’s extremely imposing. They have this huge building with these hallways that you can run a truck through, but you have no sense of corners. There are no atriums, no windows. So you’re really just looking at a long hallway. To me, it was very important that you have a sense of the United Nations as a character. So we took two days of shooting that building in Toronto.
The film doesn’t center around the character named Raya, but she does play an important role as you kind of follow her from getting tricked into this world in Ukraine, then into the trafficking in Bosnia. Is she based on a real person?
Yes. I mean, she’s based on several real people. Every event that happened to her happened to several real girls. The clues that Kathy finds throughout the film happened to several different girls. I don’t want to give anything away, but in terms of what Kathy found in the Florida Bar, what happens to Raya in the middle there, what happens to her in the end, we even downplayed what really happened because it was so shocking. I don’t know if you were at the Q&A, but one of the things I was saying was we kind of had to pull things back because they were so unbelievable. But yes, every single event that happens to Raya, happens to a number of girls.
I actually did have some questions about that because some very violent things happens to these girls, and I was curious to find out if they were based in truth and not sensationalized.
I understand, and that’s one thing I was very careful not to do. I think if you really studied it, it’s quite… disturbing isn’t even really the word. It’s unbelievable. There’s such an advanced psychology to the crime. There are countries of origin, countries of transport, and countries of destination. So, for example, you can’t just steal a girl, and expect her to quote unquote act as a prostitute. Usually, what happens is they’ll have someone in Ukraine, a recruiter, who will say, I will roundup ten students and tell them they’re going on a field trip to Italy. And this recruiter that rounds the girls up usually is someone the girls know personally. Sarajevo, or rather Bosnia was a country of transit. They herd these girls together in a country of transit for a period of two to three weeks in what they call the process of desensitization which consists of repeated rapes, they often shoot one member of the group just to show who’s boss. They will burn the girls in very strategic places, behind the ear or under the feet, so they don’t mark them. Then, the worst thing, they are told, I have bought your life for this amount of money, if you provide these services, you can buy back your freedom in two years, or three years, or whatever. So they give them the idea of hope. But the girls never get to go back.
Do the girls really believe that part of it? In the film, it’s just so shocking, I thought to myself, these people really can’t believe that, can they?
Yeah, I think that’s what I tried to do, to really create that experience as truly as possible. I think Lubya, Raya’s friend, deals with it very differently than Raya. And originally in the script, and we actually shot this ending, Lubya goes back to Ukraine. And sometimes they do let girls go back as recruiters. So do they really believe that? When you’re really in that situation, there are several things you can do. You can completely go through denial and shut yourself off, and just do what it takes to survive on a daily basis. And I think some need to believe in hope.
Rremember this is 1999, 2000, 2001, girls are coming from Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, Russia, sometimes from smaller villages. They don’t understand the concept of sex-trafficking. They’re going through this going, where am I? What’s happening? Then you’re told this story about buying your freedom back. And they’re [the traffickers] very smart about this. There’s a seniority to it. There’s sometimes a manager type girl, who will be planted. She’ll tell the rest about girls who have gone back to their home countries. And if they do send a girl back home to be a recruiter, the rest see that girl go back and think, well that could be me in two years. I could talk about this for hours, it’s horrendous.
That was a very nice contrast in the film. Lubya and Raya are best friends, but they react so differently. Lubya is more in denial, and Raya keeps a bit of hope.
I think that was important. We’re talking about thousands of girls, thousands of cases to choose from. I think sometimes people assume we’ve sensationalized it somehow, but we barely scratched the surface.
Have you received a rating from the MPAA?
The film, and really Kathy’s story, is making a very serious accusation against hugely important organization. I wondered if you had any problems trying to make this film. Was there any red tape you had to go through, any legal issues that tried to stop you from telling this story.
No, nobody tried to stop us in that sense. But when you think about it, it’s two kids, I guess were not kids any more, but two women from Canada aren’t really a threat. There are videos on YouTube that anyone can look up of blackwater guys driving down a street shooting at people in Afghanistan. You know? It was all out there. I don’t think what we’re doing, or what we’re showing, as much as it is shocking, is hard to find. I found everything I could have ever hoped to find. You’re able to talk to these people. Even Human Rights Watch has reported on it. This stuff is out there. What shocked us is that people don’t necessarily know about it. That was a problem for us. How do you make a movie that’s as compelling, but also potentionally commercially appealing in a broad sense?
Do you feel like human-trafficking is getting the amount of attention that it deserves?
I think sometimes the attention it is getting is manipulated. It’s getting more attention lately. But this is something that’s been happening for decades in Africa, Asia, South America. But suddenly put a white girl on the poster for trafficking and suddenly it’s cool, it’s everywhere. It sells, it sells movie plots. It’s in the plot of 24 and in Taken. Is the truth getting the attention it deserves? No. I think at the very least organization like the U.N. who are charged with protecting the world’s peoples, their participation should be brought out in the open.
After I saw your film, I thought wow, this is a really important issue. And I tried to come up with other films that have touched on this subject. The only one I could come up with was that Liam Neeson film you mentioned, Taken. Are there films out there people should be watching, besides your’s of course, to educate themselves?
There’s a fantastic film called Lilya 4-Ever that Lukas Moodyson made. Remember the term ‘sex-trafficking’ is a recent thing, it only came around in the early 2000s, late 1990s. But it was happening way before. So, his film is really from the point of a young girl, kind of like Raya, she’s the main protagonist, and you see what happens to her. It takes place in Sweden, not Bosnia. But it’s a very personalized version of Raya. It doesn’t really get into brothels, it’s more just about one guy that ends up pimping her. That’s a brilliant film. Other than that, there are those films, like we talked about earlier, that are just more expoitive versions of it. So really, no. And I’m surprised.
There are organizations in your film that take part in the crimes, the U.N., the State Department and a private contractor named Demacra. Who is the Demacra organization in reality?
We fictionalized this company, and compressed it. There several organizations, and several other countries that were involved. So you really have to look at it as a compilation of a system of several huge organizations. That was important to me. In the same way I didn’t want to show the incidents of one or two bad guys. I didn’t want to put a face on the actual individuals involved because there were so many. Then people kind of channel their anger on one. But the lesson, or what I’d like people to look at after this is to look at how do we allow a system that allows this type of behavior? It’s not different than what happened with the banks. How do you give these huge organization no sense of accountability so they feel they can get away with anything.
Monica Belluci plays a woman working for a humanitarian organization called GDA who participates in the trafficking. What organizations are represented in reality by the fictional GDA?
There is an organization called the International Office of Migration. That storyline is very compressed. And to me it was one of the most shocking.
The film only hints at the GDA’s involvement. In your research, did you find concrete proof?
Yes. Oh yes. You can look up Human Rights Watch reports from Bosnia. A lot of times these girls don’t want to go back home for fear traffickers will harm there families, or that they’ll get recaptured. So if these girls are unwilling to sign the paperwork necessary to be helped, often times they’ll take the girl to a border and get them across and leave them there. Then they consider their job done since they got that girl out of Bosnia. It’s a shame because at that time, the early 200s, sex-trafficking was such a sexy topic, for lack of a better word. There were a lot of grants at the time. USAID was giving a lot of money to these organizations that often times had nothing to do with migration or women’s issues, or sex-trafficking. But they could kind of put together the best grant proposal and they got millions of dollars. Then you have these amazing volunteers, like one of the characters in the film that is based on this group we found in Odessa. They constantly had to move these girls because if anyone found out where they were, men would just walk in and steal them back.
On a lighter note, how do you get so many amazing actors involved in this project? They all were incredible.
When we wrote the script, we knew Kathy but I wasn’t thinking about how to cast in the film. Once it got finished we asked ourselves, who’s the best actress out there? I think Rachel is absolutely incredible, and it’s somebody you don’t pinpoint. She has that kind of Meryl Streep quality that she can just blend in to any role. I was flabbergasted that she actually wanted to do it. I think it’s because the characters are so amazing. It certainly wasn’t because of me.
Well, you did write an amazing script.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m Canadian, but I have a hard time taking credit for the script. Eilis did a great job writing that script. [laughs]. But this is a real story. And that’s what great about people like Monica Belluci, David Strathairn, and Vanessa Redgrave. I was amazed at, and really pleased that you have these actors who can choose anything they want to do, but they want to challenge themselves. And I think that’s why this group is so great. Even though they’re quote unquote movie stars, that’s not what they’re interested in.
Can you talk about any projects you have in the works?
Sure! I’ve been reading a lot of stuff that I don’t love. But one script that Eilis wrote, based on the book Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up In Smoke by Dean Kuipers. It’s an amazing story that’s kind of based on real events, a Thelma and Louise type thing. You have these two guys that smoke a lot of pot, and they just happen to be two dudes in love. They adopt a kid and the county prosecutor just wants to shut them down, to take the child. And it kind of ends up in a Waco-like siege. They wanted to go out on their own terms. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s a really fun story, a fun group of characters. And it’s based on a true story in Michigan. But I suppose the hint underneath is Regan forfeiture laws. The other thing is kind of a heist movie set, also based on a true story, set during the Cold War during the Canada/USSR hockey summits. It’s about a group of doctors and dentists that were able to smuggle art out, sort of anti-communist art, sell it in the North America, and having to smuggle the money back to support the artists.
Thank you so much for chatting with me. Good luck with The Whistleblower and your future projects!