The Whistleblower

THE WHISTLEBLOWER. Starring Rachel Weisz, Vanessa Redgrave, and David Strathairn. Directed by Larysa Kondracki. Rated MA 15+ (Strong themes and violence). 107 min.

Inspired by true events, this Canadian-German production shot mostly in Romania, tells the story of a policewoman, Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), who risks her life to expose a human trafficking scandal. The scandal involved a private company, the local police in Bosnia, and United Nations personnel. The film is the directorial debut of Canadian film-maker, Larysa Kondracki.

The film is one of a number of movies (e.g., "Erin Brockovich", 2000), where evil exists in high places, and corruption has spread its tentacles far and wide.The film is a devastating expose of human sex-trafficking, and shows graphic violence, such as the rape and murder of a young woman, who was smuggled across the Ukrainian border with other young women to work as sex slaves in Bosnia.

Rachel Reisz takes the part of Kathryn Bolkovac, who moves from Lincoln, Nebraska to work as a United Nations peace-keeping officer in Bosnia in 1999. She took her job as a peace-keeper, working for a private consultancy company contracted by the UN to supply police personnel in Bosnia. In Bosnia, she was put in charge of the United Nations Gender Affairs Office and was responsible to Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), Head of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. On her watch, she encounters a frightened group of prostitutes, who refuse to talk with her. She collects evidence on their plight, and quickly realises that the prostitution and sex slave trade involve the local police, the UN-contracted company, and United Nations peace-keeping personnel.

Rees encouraged Kathryn to launch an investigation, and introduced her to an Internal Affairs officer, Peter Ward (David Strathairn), who helped her find her way through the treacherous bureaucracy that surrounded her, and who smuggled evidence to her. Kathryn tries to get the prostitutes to identify their kidnappers, but violence and tragedy result.

The film has been produced in a fiction format, perhaps for legal protection. The true story underlying the film, however, might have been even more powerful, if the film had not been presented in any way as a fictionalised account. Stark reality is hidden at times under the cloak of melodrama, and there are indications of preaching where real-life events might have been left to make their statement in a more forceful way. However, Weisz's performance overpowers any melodrama through the strength of her portrayal. Her acting is utterly convincing, and the film conveys a passionate concern for justice.

The story is a forceful tale of evil being done by human  beings to other human beings, and the film retains great power as Kathryn tries to unravel the multiple levels of corruption that exist. Cover-up at an official level and political immunity make it impossible that the corruption will ever stop, and as a last resort Kathryn releases her evidence to the BBC.

Technically, the film is surprisingly dark. Many of its scenes are photographed in semi-darkness, which symbolically represents terror, anxiety and the unknown. The device works. As darkness exists in real life, it's presence is dramatically conveyed in the film in the style in which it has been photographed. Hand-held camera work enhances the film's authenticity.

As an honest portrayal of a hideous trade, the movie is grimly depressing, and it is very strong emotionally. It is a major statement on evil, and convincingly demonstrates that fact, not fiction, often provides some of the most compelling depictions of moral wrong-doing that cinema can show.

Kathryn Bolkovac and Madeleine Rees left the UN. Bolkovac won her appeal against wrongful dismissal in 2001. And at the time of the film's release, the final credits tell us that 2.5 million people are still being trafficked for sex around the world.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Hopscotch Films.

Out September 29, 2011.


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