Movies about issues as tragic and uncomfortable as sex trafficking are tricky. You can make a wonderfully crafted, informative film—that no one comes to see. Moviegoers may know they should, they just don't want to.
That's just one of the reasons the story of Kathy Bolkovac is so amazing. Her story provides a somewhat palatable entry point into a horrifying reality. We like stories of whistleblowers. We root for these lone soldiers fighting the system. They appeal to us in a time when we often feel at the mercy of bigger forces beyond our control—the national debt crisis, the gridlocked political system, the wildly fluctuating DOW.
Bolkovac, a real woman, was a Nebraska cop who took a job as a U.N. peacekeeper in Bosnia in 1999. Her ex-husband had gotten a job out of state and was taking their daughter, whom he had custody of, with him. Unable to find a job in that area, Bolkovac decided to try the peacekeeping gig for six months to earn some money—$100,000 tax-free, to be exact—and buy her some more time to find employment near her daughter.
Bolkovac went to this war-torn land with noble intentions of helping to restore order. And when she got there, she quickly learned that the even greater need was rescuing young women from the sex trafficking industry.
Bolkovac joined forces with the Women's Rights and Gender Unit, and began to investigate the trafficking rings operating out of the local bars. As if the horrors of young Eastern European women being lured to Bosnia under the auspices of legitimate jobs in hotels and then forced into prostitution and kept in slave-like conditions wasn't bad enough, Bolkovac discovered that their customers included U.N. peacekeepers and international military forces—the very men who were supposed to be protecting these girls.
As Bolkovac continued to investigate, gather evidence, and voice her concern, she was met with greater and greater pushback from independent security contractors, peacekeepers, and military personnel. Thankfully, this resistance didn't soften her outrage or her resolve.
The Whistleblower captures most of this drama—some of the horrific abuse and degradation softened, some of the names changed for legal protection. Of the countless victims Bolkovac investigated, the filmmakers chose one to represent the whole. We see Raya, a young teenage girl living in a poor town in Ukraine, intrigued by the prospect of good money in a hotel job in Bosnia, brokered by a trusted local.
The next time we see her she is badly beaten up, sleeping on filthy mattresses on the floor of a bar's back room with about a dozen other girls. Photographs on the wall of the bar hint at the degrading treatment they've all endured, the sexual acts they've been forced to perform for money they are told will eventually pay off their "debt," a false hope some of the girls hang onto with frantic desperation.
Raya pings back and forth between custody, captivity, and an odd limbo in between—a victim of police raids done for show, and a legal system ill-equipped to handle the intricacies of trafficking. There's no safe house for her to stay in once she's free and tentatively agreeing to testify. There's no shelter to treat her wounds—both physical and psychological. And so she is recaptured by her traffickers, and brutally punished for getting away and speaking with authorities—made an example to prevent the others from fleeing as well.
Make no mistake, The Whistleblower isn't an easy film to watch. But the horrors aren't in your face. And Larysa Kondracki, the director who spent two years researching the film in Eastern Europe and working closely with Bolkovac, walks a careful line between showing us the devastating realities of trafficking and then offering us hope in Bolkovac's dogged attempts to blow the whistle on all the corruption around her.
The talented cast also keeps us engaged. Rachel Weisz is wonderful as Bolkovac, a no-nonsense civil servant who is stunned at what she walks into. Vanessa Redgrave is a needed touch of strength and warmth as her mentor Madeleine, and David Strathairn is at his government thriller best as Peter Ward, an Internal Affairs agent. Raya is heart-breaking as the young victim.
I was disappointed that Bolkovac, at least in the film, carries on a relationship with a married man. I certainly didn't expect her to be perfect, but it's unfortunate that she seems to take sex—with someone else's husband—so lightly when she's combating sexual crimes. There is also some uneven pacing, a couple overdramatic scenes, and a few heavy-handed moments—all somewhat understandable given the magnitude of the case and the nature of the crimes.
You will walk out of The Whistleblower angry—that U.N. peacekeepers needed only a high school diploma and to be over the age of 21, that domestic violence wasn't considered worth prosecuting in Bosnia (and still isn't in many countries), that your tax dollars helped support the corrupt security firms involved in this scandal, that trafficking wouldn't exist if there was no demand for cheap degrading sex with young girls, and that human beings could treat each other with such astounding inhumanity.
As I drove home from the screening, I found myself staggered by the fact that people can separate sex and bodies from any sense of the person involved—a God-breathed individual with hopes, talents, fears, loves. As I was wondering how these things could get so separated and distorted, I passed a billboard with a picture of a woman in a bikini on it—selling light beer. A piece of the answer, to be sure.
But The Whistleblower will serve its best purpose if it moves us not just to anger, but to action. Eilis Kirwan, one of the film's writers, remembers some of her first impressions of Bolkovac: "She's funny and she's a mom and she has weird ringtones on her phone. She's not some … self-righteous lady. She's just somebody who was in a situation who saw something was happening that she didn't think was OK." In the face of whatever injustices we encounter, may we all be inspired by Bolkovac's courage.Discussion starters
- What is your reaction to this kind of deplorable behavior? As Christians, what do you think our response should be?
- How do you think these men are able to treat young girls so brutally? What are they seeking from these interactions?
- Throughout the film, who are the victims and who are the perpetrators?
- What do you make of the fact that these crimes are investigated under the auspices of the Women's Rights and Gender Unit? Do you think sex trafficking is solely a "women's issue"?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Whistleblower is rated R for disturbing violent content including a brutal sexual assault, graphic nudity and language. Take all of this very seriously. This is a difficult movie to watch, made even more difficult by the fact that these violent, brutal things actually happen. In one scene a character is raped with a lead pipe. Though the camera focuses on her face and not on the violence, it's an excruciating scene. Photographs in the bar show half-naked girls tied up, with men—many of them security guards or military personnel—taking advantage of them in horrible, degrading ways. Though Bolkovac is an admirable champion for justice, we do see her sleep with one of her coworkers, presumably on a first date. When she discovers that he's married, she jokes about going to hell—but the relationship continues. This is an important film, but it's certainly not for young or sensitive minds.
Photos © Samuel Goldwyn Films
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.