Starring Rachel Weisz, The Whistleblower is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a small-town cop from Nebraska who in the late 1990s goes to Bosnia as a UN Peacekeeper contracted through a private global security corporation.
In Sarajevo she discovers a horrific, brutal trade in human trafficking and sex slavery and worse, that the trade is patronized and even aided by UN Peacekeepers and private security contractors.
But when Bolkovac moves to expose and shut down the sex trafficking and tries to rescue a single young girl to act as a witness, she finds much larger institutional and governmental forces (including the UN and the United States State Department) working to cover up her reports and silence her voice.
The Whistleblower–which also stars Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, and Monica Bellucci–is directed by Larysa Kondracki, a Canadian first-time director who also co-wrote the script with Eilis Kirwan. I sat down with Kondracki last week in Chicago to talk about her debut film and about the global issue of human trafficking.
Larysa Kondracki: I was reading about the subject of human trafficking back in 2004, and it was horrifying. I thought, “Oh, someone should make a movie about this.” At the time I talked to my friend, who ended up being the producer on this, and she said, “Nobody in their right mind wants to watch people being raped for two hours–you’d have to find a way into that subject.”
And then I found Kathy’s story. It reads like a John Grisham or Robert Ludlum novel; I’m going, “State department, cover up, stealing files, sneaking stuff out,” and I’m thinking, “Oh my god, here’s a movie.” It blew me away—I couldn’t believe a movie about her hadn’t already been done.
With such a heavy topic, what were your concerns when writing and making the film?
Kondracki: I was worried about what’s too much to show and talk about. If this wasn’t based on a true story, you wouldn’t find some of the scenes as disturbing as people seem to. We’ve all seen 24 and Law & Order where sex trafficking is just a plot point. But we totally toned down the reality of sex trafficking for this movie.
But ultimately I was trying to make something interesting and not too preachy. We shot it as a thriller: Is she going to get the girl? Is she going to get out alive? I was thinking of it more like a Silence of the Lambs. I also love All The President’s Men and Michael Mann’s The Insider, and of course Silkwood was huge for us. I think people are hungry again for films that have meaning.
You’ve worked closely over the years with the real Kathy Bolkovac. What makes her such a different person—someone who would stand up to such a huge cover up?
Kondracki: She says, “I was just doing my job.” She can be kind of goofy and funny, but when you talk to her about these issues or about policing, she loves that job. I’m not kidding; Kathy’s ring tone is Mission: Impossible, her favorite movies are Steven Seagal movies. So there’s a pride there in her work.
If you really want to play dime-store psychology about it, and you look at stories like Erin Brockovich, Norma Rae, and Silkwood, those women all have issues with their kids. Kathy got pregnant young, became a cop, later divorced her husband, and the judge said give up being a cop or lose your kids. She felt, “I’m finally doing what I love,” and kept her job and moved into a house near her kids, but there was this social stigma.
So how’s a woman who has custody issues with her kids end up going to Bosnia to save young women? I don’t think she thought of it that way–she was just trying to do her job–but I’m sure that has something to do with the psychological link and mothering.
Kondracki: I want people to find two hours that are engaging, and I want them to be a little bit blown away by the story and just talk more. I think the only way things will change is if you put this issue out in the public discourse.
I think talking about Bosnian sex trafficking can make people feel weird, but so far audiences really like the movie, and that’s why you make it. Otherwise I guess I would have made an educational documentary. But you do what you can do—I believe in the power of film, it’s a very large voice.
This problem is still continuing, especially now in the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan—follow the peace-keeping forces and the issue is still there. You can go after the human traffickers and the institutions that cover it up, but it’s the West that’s demanding this trade. We’re the ones making this happen–it’s Western men who are buying these services. That demand has to change, and I hope maybe this film can help work toward that on a grass-roots level.
The Whistleblower is now playing in select theaters across the country.
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