Reviews

'The Whistleblower' Means to Move You to Outrage

As Kathy suffers, you suffer, but, The Whistleblower insists, you will never know the full extent of the trafficked victims' suffering.


The Whistleblower

Director: Larysa Kondracki
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci, David Strathairn
Rated: R
Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-08-05 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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