Saturday, August 27, 2011

The BC Review: The Whistleblower

I was first made aware of this riveting drama detailing the hideous involvement of United Nations personnel in post-war Bosnia sex trafficking from a friend of mine a few weeks ago. It had yet to be released in the United States, but I knew from the trailer posted on that I had to see it as soon as it made its way to the local theatres here in NOVA.
Disclaimer: When I set out to write this review, I could not see how I could do the film justice without delving into some of the history of the conflict and the hideous nature of sexual violence to provide some context to the film. Much of my graduate studies focused on the conflict and specifically the 1995 Dayton Accords, so I do know a fair amount about the conflict and the accompanying post-conflict and subsequent peacebuilding efforts undertaken by the United Nations, but I promise to keep these details as short as possible and will attempt to weave these in coherent way throughout my review.
The Whistleblower is based on the true account of an American policewoman who took a job as a United Nations peacekeeper in 1999, following the historic signing of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords and the "end" of the Bosnian war. This was not wholly uncommon at the time as an international police force was formed to facilitate the country's evolvement from post-conflict to sustainable peace. Police officers, former military, and even every day citizens from the United States, Britain, Holland, Italy, and elsewhere in Western Europe joined the force to make a difference in Bosnia. But with any group or organization, there is bound to be corruption, and sometimes it runs rampant.
Seeking a transfer from her home police district, Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska cop takes a highly lucrative job as a private military contractor for a British-based defense contractor known in the film as "Democras" (I'll let you do the research to find out the company's true name) and soon uncovers a devastating and depraved sex trafficking ring, involving UN personnel profiting from girls trafficked across the border from such countries as Ukraine into post-war Bosnia. And yes, this is a true story.
Rachel Wiesz, in a role very reminiscent to her portrayal of Ralph Fiennes' wife in The Constant Gardner (another excellent film portraying the world of foreign policy as seen through the eyes of Western diplomats), is authentic in her characterization of what I would imagine the real Kathryn Bolkovac might be like. Her appearance in the film is not your typical Angelina Jolie-esque glamorous woman at all times complete with perfectly coiffed hair, applied lipstick, and heels -- Kathryn is dressed in a blue International Police Task Force (IPTF) uniform, complete with sensible shoes for traipsing around post-conflict Sarajevo, and as one might expect, her long brunette hair is tied back in a variety of not quite perfect ponytails and braids. And throughout the film, she becomes increasingly disheveled. The emotional toll of what she is encountering is evident in her appearance and her increasingly visceral reaction to events.
The film is benefited by the addition of Vanessa Redgrave as the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Madeleine Rees. As you might know, UNHCR representatives dispatched to Bosnia to address the thousands returning from displacement and hiding in the aftermath of the war to find their family homes destroyed, pillaged, or even sold to third parties who in turn sold them to ethnic rivals. In Rees, Kathryn finds a friend, a fellow woman working to help other women, some of whom suffered at the hands of men who employed rape as a tool of war.
There are of course several problems -- the overbearing policy of the United Nations for one, bureaucratic institutions are not known for their expediency and flexibility in navigating around their own systems even if it is to the detriment of the very people they are charged to protect and save -- and the attitudes of local police towards women. We see a glimpse of this as Kathryn begins her first investigation as part of the IPTF and comes up against local attitudes toward a Muslim woman's account of intimate partner violence at the hands of her husband. In short, the men do not see why this woman's plight should be any of their concern because in their minds intimate partner violence is a "woman's issue".
Despite these ignorant attitudes and the almost constant stonewalling of UN officials and IPTF's primary contract holder, Kathryn forges ahead with conviction and nerves of steel and she is ultimately able to make a real difference in the lives of some Bosnian women. Sadly, she is not successful in all.
The Whistleblower is not for the faint of heart. It is recommended for fans of true-life dramas and those with a passion for human rights.
The Bee Charmer Review rating: A-