Whistleblower, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 08/12/11 12:00:00

"Another award-worthy turn by Rachel Weisz."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 54TH SAN FRANCISCO FILM FESTIVAL: Kathryn Bolkovac may not be a name familiar to most moviegoers, but Bolkovac, a one-time UN peacekeeper in Serbia in the late 1990s, is the subject of writer-director Larysa Kondracki’s first, feature-length film. Bolkovac, a “whistleblower” in the truest sense of the word, attempted to expose high-level corruption in Serbia inside DynCorp., the defense contractor that hired her as a UN peacekeeper and the UN itself for dismissing her accusation of peacekeeper involvement in sex trafficking. Some of those peacekeepers either ignored sex trafficking or actively participated in the trafficking, benefitting financially. Bolkovac’s story, however, has remained relatively unknown in the West, but Kondracki’s aptly named film, "The Whistleblower," attempts, with uneven success, to rectify that oversight.

The Whistleblower first finds Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a recently divorced Nebraska policewoman, attempting to obtain a transfer (one of many) to live and work closer to her daughter. With limited funds making relocation without employment nearly impossible, Bolkovac turns to UN peacekeeping to earn cash quickly. She’s willing to make the sacrifice and, in her mind, do good, in exchange for a significant salary. Kondracki’s camera initially finds Bolkovac, sitting alone on a bus, peering intensely at the ruined, post-war landscape. What does expect, however, is to find corruption and much, much worse, when she arrives in Serbia to serve out her contract.

Not content to do the bare minimum, Bolkovac becomes involved as a supervisor and mentor to a local police officer as he investigates a case of domestic violence. Unique because the complainant is a Muslim woman (a rarity), the case moves toward prosecution and, eventually, conviction of the woman’s husband for domestic abuse. Bolkovac’s actions bring her to the attention of Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), a high-ranking UN official. Rees offers Bolkovac a position in the gender affairs division, a position Bolkovac willingly accepts. After a bust of a nightclub-brothel leads to the suspicious disappearance of the sex workers, Bolkovac discovers something far more sinister: the women, all foreign nationals falsely promised good-paying jobs in Western European countries, have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution.

Bolkovac’s attempts to bring attention of the women’s plight runs headlong into bureaucratic intransigence and, later worse, from her employers, Democra (standing in for DynCorp.), and from the UN as well. Bolkovac brings two women she’s rescued, Raya (Roxana Condurache) and Luba (Paula Schramm), to another UN official, Laura Leviani (Monica Bellucci), who claims she can’t help (without passports the two women are essentially persona non grata), leaving Bolkovac to take increasingly drastic, and, ultimately, increasingly futile, steps to save the two women and the other women sold into the sex trade.

Bolkovac’s real-life story ended without the clear-cut triumph we’ve come to expect from “social issue” or “social problem” films. Real life is far messier and, more often than not, justice isn’t always served. DynCorp. fired Bolkovac (as her reel-world counterpart is) which, in turn, made her unsurprisingly unemployable. She sued and won damages in a UK court for wrongful termination. Her case and, later, a book, helped raise awareness of sex trafficking and the involvement of contractors and/or non-governmental institutions like the UN (whose employees enjoyed and still enjoy immunity from prosecution), at least in the UK and Western Europe, but the issues she raised (e.g., sex trafficking in Eastern European countries, immunity from prosecution, etc.) remain unresolved.

Given the inherent, exploitative difficulties of sex trafficking, Kondracki deserves considerable credit for handling the subject matter with sensitivity, if not always subtlety (the villains barely merit being described as one-dimensional). She shows admirable restraint in the scenes involving the mistreatment of the kidnapped women, using one character in particular, Raya, as her viewpoint character. Raya’s victimization comes through trust and hope, usually positive values turned against an unfortunately naïve, young woman. Her fate, as well as the fate of the other women, won’t be spoiled her, but suffice it to say that it will remain with all but the most hardened moviegoers. That again, is to Kondracki’s considerable credit.

Kondracki, by her own admission, incredibly fortunate, filmed "The Whistleblower" in just six weeks in Romania. Financing for "The Whistleblower" fell into place when Rachel Weisz decided to take on the lead role (after initially rejecting it). Weisz’s role in "The Whistleblower" could be seen as a companion piece to her Oscar-winning role in "The Constant Gardener" (she played a crusading whistleblower there too). She’s just as intense, just as focused, and just as convincing in "The Whistleblower" as she was in her earlier, award-worthy turn. She may well receive another nomination. Whether she does or not is, months away from the Oscars, pure speculation, but she certainly deserves serious consideration. Hopefully, she’ll receive it.

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