SFIFF – The Whistleblower
Watching The Whistleblower is not an easy experience. It’s a bit like getting kicked in the stomach. While it’s based on a true story, the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, it’s even more unnerving to hear director Larysa Kondracki speak about how she had to tone down the remarkable turn of events to make it believable at all. Human trafficking is not an issue dealt with much in films, and when it is, it’s usually more a vehicle for someone like Liam Neeson to bring a righteous reign of terror down onto a sheik’s love yacht. Kondracki’s story, or rather Bolkovac’s is much more serious.
Kathryn Bolkovac is a former police officer from Nebraska. She took a job as a contracted (by the U.N.) peace keeper in Sarajevo, Bosnia to help stabilize the country after the end of civil war that tore the country apart. It was a lot of money for six months work, and then she could return to the states with enough to provide decently for her children she recently lost custody of. She crosses paths with two young Ukrainian girls whom she tries to help, but as she digs deeper and deeper, some terrifying patterns of sex trafficking. Trafficking that not only did the U.N., diplomats and several humanitarian organizations know about, but took part in. When Bolkovac gets too much evidence her cases are shut down from somewhere way at the top and she’s fired.
Kondracki is a first time director. And boy, did she luck out with her cast. Rachel Weiss stars as Bolkovac and she acts the hell out of this role. Respect should be directed to Kondracki and to the real Bolkovac for allowing this protagonist to be flawed and complex, there’s no sterilizing her into a hero who saved the day. Monica Belluci plays the head of a human rights organization that’s in on the action. David Strathairn is an internal affairs officer helping Bolkovac gather her evidence. And to top off this stunning cast, Vanessa Redgrave is Bolkovac’s mentor/boss, one of the good guys.
There has been some discussion about whether showing certain events are exploitive and are shown to sensationalize. While there is a lot of material that is hard to watch–at one point a trafficked girl is anally raped with pipe to set an example–Kondracki assures that these events actually happened. For an issue that is not getting the attention it deserves, this sort of well put together film can and should bring to light the truth. Sugarcoating it would do no one any good. Grisly authenticity is one of the film’s greatest aspects.
Kondracki shows great promise with her direction. Pacing is tight for the most part, and the film feels well polished. She also is credited with the script she co-wrote with Ellis Kirwan. On an interesting note, Bolkovac sold Kondracki the rights to her story for $100.
The film is unsatisfying only in its conclusion. This is not the fault of the filmmakers who choose to stay true to Bolkovac’s story. No one was ever brought to justice. A few of men were fired and sent home, but everyone had diplomatic immunity so no one ever faced criminal charges. Two million people worldwide are still being trafficked.