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The Whistleblower

August 14, 2011
The Whistleblower

It’s not exactly the newest question around: who watches the watchers? When we give someone authority, how are they prevented from its abuse? In normal policing, ideally the authorities represent the community they police, but when it comes to international peacekeepers, those in charge by definition are from elsewhere. And as The Whistleblower reminds us, there was nothing to stop the abuses committed by the private forces directed by the United Nations in the wake of the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

To be sure, there were some who held the ideals of the mission sacred. Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) was one of them. After arriving at the mission in the employ of Democra Security — it was really DynCorp in real life, but as usual many of the historical details have been fudged for various reasons ranging from streamlining the story to avoiding liability — she quickly made a name for herself by assisting the first successful prosecution of domestic violence since the end of the war. She was placed at the head of “gender affairs”, which is where she first came face to face with human trafficking.

Young girls were — and are still — lured in places like Kiev, given false documentation, and transported to foreign countries — Bosnia, here — where they were purchased and enslaved. I cannot even bring myself to start in on the litany of what they endure. The film does a good enough job of going into graphic, though not lurid or gratuitous, detail.

But in a faltering state whose male population has just been halved, who are these girls here to serve? Kathryn finds a wall of photographs at a raided bar, most of which show men in UN tee shirts. The raid itself doesn’t show up in the records; a tip-off that it was more a shake-down than a real law enforcement operation. And so it goes, with the circle of those involved steadily widening.

Kathryn does find some allies; Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), the high-level UN diplomat who put Kathryn up for her head position believes in the work and puts her in contact with Peter Ward (David Strathairn), an Internal Affairs investigator. And Laura Leviani (Monica Bellucci), the local chief of an international group working on the problem of human trafficking, means well, but finds herself more loyal to policy than people sometimes.

But since the vast majority around her hold a vested interest in the status quo, it’s a struggle for Kathryn to get the word out and find someone — anyone — who will listen. Telling this story gives us a taut, suspenseful thriller that manages to open our eyes to what happened here along the way. Director Larysa Kondracki walks the line between engagement and sensationalism, and Weisz nails Kathryn’s character. It’s not easy to watch this story, and impossible to walk away unaffected, both of which are reasons it must be seen.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2011 09:05

    This film ranks pretty low on the “human rights porn” genre, which I talk about here:

  2. August 16, 2011 09:23

    You do make good points, and I’d encourage people to go read your own take. I definitely agree that the romantic subplot was a weak point, except that it really did happen and Ms. Bolkovac not only did meet this guy but did eventually marry and settle with him.

    On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the viscerality of film as a way of raising consciousness. I disagree that Kondracki crossed the line into gratuity, and I noted a number of points where unnecessary punches were pulled. If turning this into a thriller is the — and I apologize for the inverted metaphor — spoonful of sugar that is needed to help the medicinal reality go down better than it would in a more clinical setting then I’m less than incensed about it.

    I suppose what I’d like to see is a more realistic documentary to be paired with this dramatized version, sort of the way Casino Jack is better when watched in conjunction with Casino Jack and the United States of Money. The one raises interest and the other delivers the hard message.


  1. Elle s’appelait Sarah « DrMathochist

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