It took until early this year for the United Nations to screen Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower, even though the film had been out for nearly a year; had its theatrical release last September after winning numerous film-festival kudos; has an all-star cast that includes Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, and Vanessa Redgrave; and takes place in United Nations territory, on the grounds of the U.N. Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reason for the delay isn’t hard to guess: In the film, many in the U.N. system do not come off well.
Whistleblower, a harrowing account with the pace of a thriller, is based on a 2001 scandal involving human trafficking in Bosnia—a scandal in which some employees of a U.S. private military contracting firm are accused of providing sex slaves for numerous U.N. personnel, including peacekeepers.
That criminality was exposed because of the efforts of three fearless women, of two nationalities, who defied power to stop the abuse of thousands of younger, more vulnerable women from all over Eastern Europe.
Kathryn Bolkovac, the whistleblower of the title (played in the film by Rachel Weisz), is a former Nebraska police officer who was told on her arrival in Bosnia—where she was to serve on the U.N.’s International Police Task Force (IPTF)—that she’d be helping the battered nation recover. After successfully investigating domestic-violence cases, Bolkovac became a “gender investigator” in the U.N. Mission; she stumbled on a network of not-very-undercover brothels while investigating rape allegations. As the film illustrates, Bolkovac kept on investigating despite the apathy of her supervisors—U.N. officials who minimized the significance of what she was learning—and of her male colleagues. (In the film the latter tell Weisz’s Bolkovac not to be surprised: “Bosnia is the capital of stuff that’s f**ked up.”) According to the film, she learned that U.N. monitors, including employees of the private military contractor for which she was working, were not just patronizing the brothels: They had bought, sold, and transported at least 2,000 girls from throughout the former Soviet Union. But ITPF shut down her investigation after she discovered its extent, and Bolkovac was expelled from the U.N. compound.
All of her findings might have remained buried were it not for Madeleine Rees (played in the film by Redgrave), who at the time headed the Women`s Rights and Gender Unit for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia. When IPTF shut down the case, Rees—who had promoted Bolkovac and assisted her investigations—decided to finally go public on what everyone had “sort of” known was happening.
Rees approached a third woman, former U.S. State Department official Tanya Domi, who until 2000 had been a human-rights and media-rights officer in Bosnia and had long been outraged by gender violence there. By 2001, Domi had begun to work with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting; had testified before Congress; and had challenged former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke about U.N. inaction on gender crimes. “If you want to go public,” she told her friend and colleague Rees, “I can help you do that.”
Domi, now an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs, at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, is not represented in The Whistleblower. But when the film opened the Athena Film Festival last month, she was among those who spoke afterward to the crowd of about 400, along with Celine Rattray, one of the film’s producers, and film historian Annette Insdorf, who is most famous for her book Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust.
Rattray, well known for supporting women’s films such as The Kids Are Alright and Grace Is Gone, said she was proud of the film. “When I read the script, I couldn’t believe this had gone on,” Rattray said. “And the main character—she was just so inspirational. But . . . this is exactly the sort of thing people don’t want to finance!” Before filming, she added, first-time director Kondracki had to produce “a 100-page precis and a 15-minute short” of the film before funding was secured. “Even after we had signed Rachel Weisz.”
Weisz signed on, she tells Charlie Rose in the clip below, because “I like films about ordinary people challenging the system,” though she immediately admitted that Bolkovac is nowhere near ordinary.
Rattray added that Bolkovac’s life hasn’t been easy, even after a judge awarded her compensation for unfair termination by the military contractor—but the reception of the film has buoyed her. “At Toronto Film Festival, when Kathy came forward after the screening, they gave her two standing ovations.”
Turning to Domi, Insdorf asked her, “Is this film accurate, from your experiences in the region and your part in the story?”
“Very accurate,” Domi said. Back in 2000, she added, at the U.N. Mission “there were very few women at the table. And therefore, there was very little sensitivity to the fact that 20,000 women had being trafficked following the war and it was still going on.” All of which, she added, made Bolkovac and Rees’s bravery impressive indeed. “In that building, Madeleine was two doors away from that guy you saw in the movie, the ambassador”—Jacques Paul Klein, head of the U.N. Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina—”but she and Kathy did not blink. That is not always what happens” when institutions are faced with horrible crimes, she said.
About her own role, Domi explained that “When Madeleine told me that Kathryn wanted to go public, I told her, ‘Not the BBC first. I want to break it in Bosnia first; let me talk to Bosnian journalists I trust.’” Only later did Bolkovac give the interview that is reenacted in the film, with the BBC confronting U.N. officials.
What has changed since then? For one thing, Domi pointed out, the revelations have sparked changes in international law: “The doctrine of universal jurisdiction allows for people to be arrested for trafficking” even if they would otherwise have diplomatic immunity, like the U.N. monitors in 1999. Still, she added regretfully, change has been slow. (That night, no one mentioned that Bolkovac’s former employer has lost little from her revelations, and still holds billions of dollars in U.S. and U.N. contracts.) Still, after that initial U.N. screening in January, all U.N. missions are screening the film—worldwide. “We hope that is raising mass consciousness,” Domi added.
All agreed that the film has only begun to have its full impact—and that The Whistleblower is a far more powerful tool than Bolkovac, Rees, and Domi had at their disposal when they first took the scandal public.
“What we weren’t able to communicate in 2001, this film communicates in the most graphic way,” Domi said. It also, she added, has the potential to help women in conflict zones who have experienced abuse. “Culture,” she said, “is a place where people can go and heal.”