Kathy Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) arrives in Bosnia in 1999 with her own problems. She’s joined the U.N. peacekeeping force for a few reasons, not least being that the job pays a lot of money for a short assignment. She’s also struggling with family issues: her ex has moved their children, plus his new uptight wife, out of Nebraska, and her barely teenaged daughter is feeling abandoned. Accused of being “married to that job of yours,” Kathy hopes to change her workaholic pattern by… taking on more work.
She can’t begin to imagine what this work will be like at the start of The Whistleblower. Based on a true story, the film quickly lays out the impossible mission: the multi-national team of police officers—technically employed by Democra, a fictional version of the American contractor DynCorp International—is charged with training local cops to do their jobs, to arrest lawbreakers and protect victims. That the legal and political systems are not always on board with this objective is only a first problem. Policemen are inclined to blame abused women rather than prosecute their assailants, that is, their husbands, boyfriends, and pimps: an early scene shows Kathy trying to interview a tearful, visibly bruised victim while local cops taunt her from just three steps away.
Righteously outraged, Kathy is thus set up for the plot indicated by her film’s title. Toward that end, she’s provided with a supporting cast: a trainee willing to go after perpetrators Viko (Alexandru Potocean), a sympathetic boyfriend, Jan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), and a powerful ally in the U.N. human rights lawyer Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave). When Madeleine asks her to head a new Gender Affairs office, Kathy accepts, even though it means staying longer than she planned in Bosnia. A short phone call with her distracted daughter back home hints at costs that Kathy can’t (or won’t, for now) calculate, and then she’s off, her determination indicated by her police uniform (pants, boots, gun) and set jaw.
Again, Kathy will be caught off guard. For it’s not only the local Bosnian population that perpetuates a gendered class system of abuse, but it is, she comes to find out, the international police force too. Specifically, U.N. employees are involved in human trafficking, as clients and profiteers. The Whistleblower makes this horrific revelation melodramatic, tracking the journey of a couple of girls, Raya (Roxana Condurache) and Luba (Paula Schramm), sold by relatives in Ukraine to traffickers in this post-war zone. As the girls are repeatedly locked up, drugged, beaten, and raped, the film cuts back to Russia, where Raya’s mother Halyna (Jeanette Hain) rather miraculously discovers what’s happened and travels to Sarajevo to recover her daughter.
As this piece of the plot provides emotional detail and a bit of narrative balance—Kathy and Halyna are both fiercely devoted if flawed mothers—it also hints at the film’s larger project, which is to depict the long-term and multiple effects of trafficking, and specifically, the trafficking that fills a post-war void. As the real Bolkovac points out in an interview, the fates of victims and victimizers in such a climate typically follow a sort of “shock doctrine” trajectory, exploited for profit by so-called peace-keeping forces. The key would be educating these employees, she says: “They’re basically just sending people over to these missions with no training as to what the local laws are, no training on international law, no training on the cultural differences they’re going to be encountering.”
The film illustrates this lack of training, but also shows how people who should know better collude in perpetuating the problems. Here Laura Leviani (Monica Bellucci), a bureaucrat for refugee affairs, stymies Kathy’s efforts, and Democra’s in-house counselor, a sinister fellow named Blakely (William Hope), essentially shuts her down, as it becomes clear his primary assignment is not to provide therapy for employees, but to protect the company’s financial interests.
As diligently as Kathy pursues her case, the film cuts back to brutal assaults, as, say, Raya—who has spoken with Kathy, agreed to testify, and then been recaptured—is raped with a pipe to show her fellow prisoners what to expect if they try to escape. Such scenes are designed to make viewers feel pain, with emphasis on frightened faces and hollow eyes, rather than on the act of violence or the perpetrator. It makes for an unusual and mostly admirable emotional focus, for the movie is less interested in Kathy’s development, which remains rudimentary, than in the lesson she and you must learn.
As Kathy suffers, you suffer, but, the movie insists, you will never know the full extent of the trafficked victims’ suffering. If she’s an obvious audience surrogate, allowing you to feel noble and angry and tough like her, she’s also less vividly drawn than the girls she wants to help. If the clues she finds and helpers she meets (say, the significantly named IA representative Peter Ward [David Strathairn]) are convenient, they’re also representative, like her own story. The U.N. has never resolved these cases, and Dyncorp, you learn at film’s end, is still contracting, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Whistleblower means to move you to outrage.