Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 09, 2011 4:39 pm 
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Mercenaries, gangsters and innocents

The Whistleblower is a gritty post-war crime tale set in 1999 about Kathryn Bolkovac (Naomi Weisz), a recently divorced American policewoman and mother of three from Nebraska who takes a high-paying job for a "peacekeeping" group that works for the UN in Bosnia. Her work defending a woman suffering from domestic abuse gains her wider responsibilities. Eventually she finds that men in her company, DnyCorp, and other international employees are involved in abuse of prostitutes and human trafficking. Her effort to expose this gets her fired and expelled, but she's successful in exonerating herself and revealing the abuses to the British press. This is a story that we need to know about -- Kathryn Bolkovac is a real person; human trafficking is still a fast-growing international business -- and Toronto-born Kondracki tells it with fervor. The moral dubiousness of military contractors is another issue that needs to be spotlighted. This movie is intense, earnest, and relentless. It is also so in-your-face and humorless that at times it feels more exhausting than enlightening. It would not have hurt to bring more subtlety and flair to the process. The Whistleblower is a tough watch, but it has no shortage of scenes that are exciting as well as harrowing.

The film begins in a loud disco in the Ukraine, then jumps to Nebraska. Two Ukrainian girls are out on a wild night. In Nebraska, Kathy is an outstanding police officer, but she has a dilemma. Her ex-husband has gained custody of her daughter and is moving to the South. She needs to move there to be near her daughter but is having trouble getting a transfer. She takes a job as a U.N. International Police Force monitor that her boss tells her about because she'll make $100,000 in six months and will have enough money for the move without a job. All of a sudden Kathy is in Bosnia putting on a UN uniform and learning her new duties. Her exemplary work puts her in contact with a high UN official in the Human Rights Commission, Madeleine Rees (the regal Vanessa Redgrave), who gets her promoted to head of Gender Affairs, so she's focused on the abuse of women. She extends her time of service to do this. She also takes a soulful Dutch lover, Jan Van der Velde (Nikolaj Lie Kaas of Susanne Bier's Brothers), who turns out to be still married.

Pursuing her new assignment leads Kathy to the two Ukrainian girls we met head-on in the first scene. The camerawork by Kieran McGuigan is so overbearing in this movie, if it wants to show us a yard is full of geese, the lens is set down on the ground a foot from the flapping, squawking birds. The disco scene gave us a mass of large, blurry bodies, and then the huge face of Raya (Roxana Condurache), who is soon going to be in a world of trouble. Raya and her friend Irka (Rayisa Kondracki) have been drugged, kidnapped, and taken to be prostitutes in Bosnia. They ey are held captive at a horrible night club called Florida whose ugly back rooms, also (and repeatedly) thrown in our faces, are worse than Abu Ghraib. Some of the girls think that if they work off a debt they will be released, but they are slaves whose lives are treated as worthless, except when the bar owner chooses to sell them.

Kathy's investigations lead her to a series of dead ends whose origins in high level complicity between UN and DynCorp officials, international employees, local police, and gangsters she doesn't grasp as quickly as she catches on to the bad business happening to the kidnapped girls. Madeline, as she asks Kathy to call her, brings in Internal affairs officer Peter Ward (David Strathairn). Alas, in the event Kathy can't protect the girls she promises she will make safe if they testify. She looks for other girls at another bar and prepares a pile of dossiers with identifications and testimony. It has emerged early on that a man called Fred Murray (David Hewlett), one of Kathy's colleagues, is a key player in the trafficking and prostitution ring, as is the local Bosnian police chief. But worst of all the local DynCorp head, Blakely (William Hope), wants to protect the malefactors and get rid of Kathy. She has also been continually blocked by a UN bureaucrat, repatriation program head Laura Leviani (Monica Bellucci), who keeps telling her "we have a way of doing things here," which is a way that leaves the kidnapped girls repeatedly high and dry. Perhaps Peter Ward can help her. But where his loyalty lies is obscure, and this provides a welcome element of uncertainty and suspense during a final sequence.

Much as the camerawork often puts us too close to all the action to think, Larysa Kondracki feels too close to all the details of her story to tell it as elegantly and clearly as she might have done. She and her co-writer Eilis Kirwan, who extensively researched the events, have done a book about them, and it may be a good one. But a film needs more variety and more of a sense of pacing than The Whistleblower provides.

On the other hand the relentlessness of Naomi Weisz's performance, which somewhat resembles her investigator role in The Constant Gardener, can hardly be faulted. Her Kathryn Bolkovac is a well balanced combination of passion and cool. The movie is worth watching for Weisz, if you are up to being punished for two hours in a good cause. Since we live in an era when whistleblowers are being increasingly squeezed by the powers that be, the punishment may be worth it. But be warned: this movie never pauses for breath or cracks a smile, and it contains several scenes of disturbing cruelty and violence.

The Whistleblower was shot over 36 days, primarily in Bucharest, Romania, and premiered at Toronto in September 2010; it has had nominations and awards at other festivals. Its US release began August 5, 2011.

[Bolkovac herself has written, in a summary of her experiences: "In the years since, allegations of sexual assault and human rights violations by UN peacekeepers have been brought forth on missions in Congo, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Cambodia, Colombia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have involved DynCorp." Whistleblowers are needed in many areas to fight the complicity of the weak with the evildoing of the powerful, says Nick Cohen in an Observer column, "Let the law save whistleblowers, not silence them." He says the French philosopher Michel Foucault "argued that speech was only free when the weak used it against the strong."]

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