Review: The Whistleblower

Posted on March 15, 2012

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Larysa Kondracki’s debut film, The Whistleblower , was recently screened at the UN. I don’t know whether that’s commendable or just extremely ironic. The film is a raw indictment of UN peacekeepers’ involvement in sex trafficking in post-war Bosnia, and the screening could either be an attempt to raise awareness of corruption running deep within the institution, or a palliative aimed at abating public criticism while the same kind of abuse continues to be a problem in Nigeria, Congo, Liberia, and Sudan— to name a few.

The film tells the real story of Kathryn Bolkovac, an American police officer who takes a job as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia. In the film, Kathryn works for “Democra” a fake name for real life contracting company DynCorp, known for its employees committing human rights abuses across the globe, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, though the film is called The Whistleblower  the name of the company is protected by Kondracki for reasons of liability and fails to truly emphasize the lack of accountability contractors have. The film largely focuses on Kathyrn, portrayed by Rachel Weisz,  and her fight against the UN peacekeeping system. Weisz is known for expertly playing another “woman-against-the-system” role alongside Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener, and the films are alike in their use of dramatic irony to build up suspense and frustration. However,  The Whistleblower  is much more than a corporate/political thriller, based on a true story, it is rather a powerful indictment of the moral and bureaucratic failings of the international humanitarian system.

The film is most successful in its humanizing a subject which is either rarely spoken of, or addressed through numbers and statistics. Not only is Kathryn, the protagonist’s character wholesome, but the movie also manages to give the victims’ a face, a voice, and a story.  The film achieves this by concentrating on Kathryn’s efforts to coax two Ukrainian girls, Raya and Irka, to identify their traffickers. The movie deftly touches upon the main difficulty involved in combating trafficking, which is the victim’s fear and mistrust of law enforcement. Even if victims come across  an officer like Kathryn who is willing to help them, and who is evidently not involved in the operation, victims are still terrified of abusive retribution and death threats from their “masters” if they cooperate with police.  Many girls also choose to stay in their current situation because they are  uneducated, unaware of their rights, and constantly threatened with tales of deportation or arrest for prostitution. In the film, Kathryn attempts to soothe the girls, gain their trust, and get the testimonial needed for prosecution, by promising them protection if they agree to talk.

However, this is a promise Kathryn soon realizes she won’t be able to keep. Neither the local nor the international systems offered support or protection for victims, and a law enforcement approach was futile. Many of the men involved either had diplomatic immunity or were employed by DynCorp, a private security company whose contracts make it extremely difficult to indict employees in court. As Kathryn digs deeper and begins to realize the full extent of the operation and the damning involvement of the police and United Nations peacekeepers, her employers at “Democra” become convinced that she has to be gotten rid of.  The film’s investigative plot unravels the political bureaucratic mess that was post-war Bosnia. Kathryn isn’t even able to find an ally in head of the repatriation office (played by Monica Bellucci) who puts the girls at risk and refuses to give them a safe passage back home because their passports have been confiscated by the traffickers. The only figures of support Kathryn has are two unfortunately underdevelopped characters, Peter Ward and Madeleine Rees.

Ward is a mysterious internal affairs agent who helps Kathryn gather the evidence needed to expose the operation to the press, but he turns out to be merely a plot device used to build up suspense rather than a fleshed-out character. Similarly,  Madeleine Rees, the head of the Humanitarian Rights Office in Bosnia at the time,  is typified in her role as a wise, elderly adviser to Kathryn and comes off as an extremely passive character. The portrayal of Rees by Vannessa Redgrave gives the impression that she is simply a well-meaning bureaucrat who is imprisoned by the system, as opposed to the active agent of change which Rees is in real life. The film sadly fails to capitalize on Rees’ zeal and know-how, losing the complexity  it could have gained by having more equally balanced and developed characters, and becomes instead a rather formulaic, hero-focused, Hollywood  thriller.

But despite the failure to be more than just a hero-led film, the redeeming aspect of The Whistleblower is its inclusion of the victims’ family in the plot, however brief their appearances may be. The film actually begins not with Kathryn, but with the two girls at a party followed by the scene of an argument Rya has with her mother after she comes home late at night. Rya runs away from home, and she and Irka fall into the hands of traffickers because they are coaxed by other members of their family under pretenses of modeling. From time to time, the film follows Rya’s mother’s attempts at discovering what happened to her missing daughter, including a confrontation with the head of the repatriation office and the final heartbreaking realization when she finds out she has been lied to and betrayed. Though some critics’ opinions are that the film has more characters than it can handle and that the inclusion of the scenes with the mother are awkward at best, it is important to evaluate these scenes not only by their artistic value but by the story they tell. The reason why thousands of women fall prey to traffickers is trust. Women and girls are more often than not, brought into trafficking by those they know, and what begins as a promise of a better life turns into a nightmare of slavery and torture. For a film whose aim is to raise awareness not only about abuses in the international peacekeeping system but about the crime of trafficking itself, it is necessary to have these components.

The Whistleblower is able to bring to the forefront crucial issues which the international community faces in its attempts to combat trafficking— the need to sensitize vulnerable communities in source countries and the need to have solutions that are based on human rights rather than a law enforcement approach. It fails however to truly address the need to find ways international and domestic justice systems can prosecute contractors and UN officers regardless of their status. The film ends with Kathryn’s public denouncement of the atrocities that she was a witness to, but there is no account of the aftermath or consequences of her going public. The film could have gone further in its exposition of a flawed system by showing the impunity given to officials and contractors, as well as the hypocrisy of governments who continued to hand out billion dollar contracts to DynCorp in Iraq and Afghanistan. But perhaps the brief, anti-climatic, explanatory epilogue notes which appear at the very end, which leave the audience feeling hopelessly depressed about humanity— perhaps they serve a purpose. If that sense of leaving something unfinished, of refusing to round-up the loose ends is meant to make audience reflect and research and protest, then I suppose artistic value is better sacrificed for a purpose. If my indignation was also felt by the employees who watched the film at UN HQ, if they  walked out thinking ‘something has to change’ then this film has achieved something greater than a lot documentaries.

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