More than a Movie: ‘The Whistleblower’s Heartfelt Plea for Greater Humanity

Powerful. Dramatic. Well-acted. Necessary.

Not all films might be described by this last term. Each year critics and audiences wonder why some films are made, even as mindless entertainment. The Whistleblower requires audiences to think and, preferably, to act on what they see in this dramatization of whistleblower Kathy Bolkovac’s experiences as a member of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia during the late ’90s. As the cast and filmmakers explain in the special feature, they know exactly why The Whistleblower is a necessity—it was designed to make audiences worldwide aware of the growing problem of human trafficking.

Brief interviews with writer/director Larysa Kondracki, scriptwriter Eilis Kirwan, star Rachel Weisz, and even Kathryn Bolkovac, the real whistleblower, emphasize their passion and rationale for telling this story. These women came together to illustrate and, through “entertainment”, educate audiences about the sex trade’s victims. In the film, Bolkovac writes that we—whether policymakers, peacekeepers, or the public — must not lose our humanity. The Whistleblower makes a similar plea.

After screenings at North American film festivals in early 2011, the film received a limited release late last summer and may have largely gone unnoticed by crowds intent on seeing blockbusters. Ironically, The Whistleblower works better as a Blu-ray disc watched at home. Despite its excellent cast, which includes two Academy Award winners, Whistleblower seems more like an independent film than standard cinema fare. On disc, the “serious topic” film is a riveting drama made more intimate, and thus more powerful, on a small screen.

Based on Bolkovac’s book, The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice, the film follows Weisz-as-Bolkovac from her Nebraska life as a police officer through her immersion into the darker world of Bosnian post-war politics and peacekeeping. Kathy soon becomes the gender-affairs officer in the war-torn country. Although her years on the police force prepared her for violence and victims, she is horrified by the extent of corruption around her.

Although the film shows that her former husband and current employer question her maternal instincts—she lost custody of her daughter and is a long-distance (and emotionally distant) parent—she becomes a fierce advocate and would-be protector of the wounded young women she meets. Kathy tries to save Raya, a naïve teen swept into life as an abused prostitute in a foreign country. She becomes the catalyst for Bolkovac’s activism and eventual whistleblowing.

Unlike other whistleblower films, ranging from Frank Capra’s now-classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), violently spellbinding Serpico (1973), or Oscar winner Norma Rae (1979), 2010’s The Whistleblower ultimately is not a happy or even redemptive story. Audiences can’t go away thinking that a crisis has been averted and someone, whether an actor in a fictionalized role or the real person who faced life-threatening consequences, has solved the problem.

Instead, The Whistleblower becomes everyone’s call to action. It is a cinematic wake-up call not only about what happened in Bosnia but what is happening more frequently around the world. There can be no “happy ending” to human trafficking—it must be stopped. That message hits home even more forcefully when viewers watch the video within the comfort of their living room. The contrasts between our comfortable lives and the horrors faced by the dehumanized “commodity” being sold are made more obvious at home than in a theater.

Unlike the bigger, better known whistleblower films previously mentioned, The Whistleblower’s cinematography and editing are adequate but not visually intriguing. Audiences are pulled into the story through Weisz’s strong performance; Kathy’s introduction to Bosnia and its many bars with a side of sex trade becomes ours, and together we uncover layers of cover-ups and threats. Weisz seldom is off screen, and her impassioned portrayal elevates what otherwise could be melodrama.

The international cast is another strength, although Vanessa Redgrave and David Strathairn are only supporting players. Nevertheless, their performances are dynamic and memorable, as might be expected. Redgrave, as always, can make even a small role mesmerizing, whether she is whispering warnings to Bolkovac or standing up to those determined to maintain the status quo. Benedict Cumberbatch, whose recent high-profile television (Sherlock) and movie roles (War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) exponentially increased his international celebrity, has a few lines (and an American accent), but his character is given nothing to do. Despite their limited screen time, the famous cast members in supporting roles undoubtedly will draw a wider audience to this film.

Although the only extra feature lasts slightly more than five minutes, it is well worth watching. Seeing the real people as well as the actors who play them makes the casting even more interesting. Seldom do actors look similar to those they portray, but the outward differences here are especially striking. However, as the interviews emphasize, Weisz and Redgrave captured the personality and, more importantly, the determination and genuine caring of these activists, who are still fighting to tell the world what they have witnessed. Film is yet another medium for whistleblowing, as these women explain.

The mighty corporation who made billions off its government contract, the peacekeepers who abused their policing powers, and the local officials who looked anywhere but at the problem didn’t listen to whistleblower Bolkovac or care about their victims. Now that The Whistleblower is more accessible on Blu-ray than it was during its limited theatrical release, the question becomes this: Will audiences become better educated, or even socio-politically active, as a result of The Whistleblower, or will we too look the other way?

For more information about human trafficking, here are just two resources: Kathy Bolkovac’s site, and the Human Rights Watch report on women in Bosnia.

RATING 7 / 10