Women confront war’s aftermath in harrowing political drama ‘Whistleblower’
Most war movies are made for and by men. They tend to be violent, testosterone jubilees about courage under fire, incredible battlefield heroics, and hard-fought victories. Canadian-born Ukrainian filmmaker Laysa Kondracki takes a different approach in her intense and harrowing drama, The Whistleblower. Not only does she view the process of war from a feminine perspective, she explores the lingering and devastating consequences of warfare on women long after the mission has supposedly been accomplished and the fighting troops have gone home.
The film is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a police officer from Nebraska who joined the UN peacekeeping forces in war-ravaged Bosnia in 1999.
While there, she uncovered a horrifying sex-trafficking ring involving teenage Balkan girls that her superiors were surprisingly uninterested in doing anything about. When Bolkovac leaked her findings to the world press, filmmaker Kondracki became interested in telling her story. The two women spent some time together, then Kondracki and her writing partner Ellis Kirwan traveled around Europe for two years, researching the facts and writing the script. The resulting film leaves the viewer breathless with both suspense and outrage.
Rachel Weisz stars as Lincoln, Neb., policewoman Kathryn Blakely, a divorced mother whose long hours on the job have prompted the court to award child custody to her ex-husband. Trying to get transferred to a better-paying position to spend more time with her teenage daughter, Kathy reluctantly accepts a lucrative 6-month position as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia, under the auspices of Democro, a security company under private contract to the U.S. government.
The UN international forces are comprised of men and women from dozens of nations, all from the private (non-military) sector, trying to mop up the postwar mess in Sarajevo, where “lawlessness has run rampant.” Assigned to investigate shootings and stabbings, Kathy shocks her male colleagues and superiors by applying “basic police work” to a case of domestic violence (which the sniggering locals don’t even consider a crime). Prosecuting it as a felony assault, Kathy wins the first conviction ever for domestic violence—which brings her to the attention of Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), head of the UN Human Rights Commission in Sarajevo, who puts Kathy in charge of Domestic Affairs.
Things heat up when two teen girls are taken into protective custody, one of whom, Raya (Roxana Condurache) has been severely beaten. Kathy learns they’ve escaped from a notorious roadhouse out in the woods; when she goes to shut the place down, she finds cells, manacles, and evidence of sexual coercion of the undocumented teen “waitresses” from neighboring Balkan states. Her efforts to persuade Raya to testify in court go horribly awry, but Kathy doggedly pursues the case. Encouraged by Internal Affairs agent Peter Ward (David Strathairn), and met at every turn by disdain, hostility, or outright threats from her male colleagues, Kathy uncovers ever more disturbing evidence that members of the IPTF (International Police Task Force) and her bosses at Democro are not only clients of the sex trafficking network, they operate it.
Filmmaker Kondracki sticks to a relentless and effective feminine perspective throughout. Not only does the investigation proceed through the angry eyes of woman and mother Kathy, we also experience the excruciating plight of the girls themselves, bullied, tortured, and terrorized by their male captors. (Kondracki never has to show more than the girls’ terrified faces to make her point.) Through Raya, Kondracki also introduces Raya’s mother, a subplot by which we feel not only a woman’s despair over her missing child, but her blistering rage when she discovers (within her own family) the predator who stole her daughter.
These are the kinds of people too often dismissed as collateral damage in the grand annals of warfare. Kondracki chooses to place them centerstage, and her drama is all the more vivid and compelling because of it. Playing against type as a de-glamorized, working-class Yank, Weisz gives us an earnest, perfectly life-sized Kathy whose fierce moral outrage both propels and grounds the film. She and Kondracki put a human face on the plight of the powerless caught up in unconscionable abuses of power, and roundly damn corporate malfeasance-for-profit abroad carried out in the name of the USA.
★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, and Vanessa Redgrave. Written by Larysa Kondracki and Ellis Kirwan. Directed by Larysa Kondracki. A Samuel Goldwyn release. Rated R. 112 minutes.