(Canada/Germany, 100 min)
Dir: Larysa Kondracki; Writ: Eilis Kirwan & Larysa Kondracki
Starring: Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Vanessa Redgrave, Roxana Condurache, and Monica Bellucci.
Bursting onto the film scene with the bravery and skill of a seasoned veteran, Larysa Kondracki is a born filmmaker. Her debut feature The Whistleblower is pretty much as big a powerhouse as first features can be. Kondracki delivers this important tale with the flair of a mature dramatist and the passion of devoted humanitarian.
The Whistleblower is the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), an American police officer who goes to Bosnia for a short term peacekeeping contract with the United Nations. Bolkovac chooses the job out of necessity: she’s recently divorced and needs the extra cash so that she can move closer to her daughter. During the mission, however, Kathryn uncovers a human trafficking operation that involves several of her co-workers.
Kathryn begins probing the matter on the sly, as she believes that people in her own organization are trying to kill the investigation. Luckily, she finds allegiance with UN exec Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave) and Internal Affairs chief Peter Ward (David Strathairn). Additionally, she’s greatly aided by one civilian: Raya (Roxana Condurache), a young girl who entered Bosnia via the trade and agrees to testify against the traffickers. Raya almost becomes a surrogate daughter to Kathryn, and her tale becomes more devastating when we discover that her exploitation was enabled by members of her own family.
Through Raya, Kondracki and co-writer Eilis Kirwan put a human face on the problem of human trafficking. It’s a successful narrative choice that makes The Whistleblower so compelling. By focusing on the brutal victimization of the crime, The Whistleblower provocatively illustrates the depravity of the organization’s collusion. As Kathryn looks deeper into the extracurricular activities of her co-workers, she’s sidelined by sexism, hostility, and coercion. Furthmore, any postive efforts are caught up in the apathetic bureaucratic red-tape of Laura Levin (Monica Bellucci). Perhaps the worst crime depicted in The Whistleblower is the indifference that many of the supposed humanitarians exhibit to the victims they claim to protect. The negligence and double standards shown to Kathryn and the victims are tragic.
Kondracki and Kirwan are careful, though, and the film isn’t a flagrant condemnation of everyone and everything associated with the UN. Particularly in the early scenes between Bolkovac and her co-worker Jan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), in which they fight for the rights of an abused woman, the film shows that some good is produced by the humanist efforts. In Jan, Kathryn finds a strong ally and he helps her throughout the course of her investigation. Likewise, the film consistently focuses on the exploitation as its central issue, rather than pointing the finger at specific players who organized the crime. While they avoid naming names, the filmmakers display anything but cowardice in their bold unfolding of the drama.
Kondracki also shows considerable directorial wisdom in her handling of the film’s violence. The Whistleblower is a very intense film, yet rarely is the violence onscreen. Most often, the camera focuses on those witnessing the violence, and not the act itself. At times, the visceral power of The Whistleblower is almost unbearable, but through the concentration on the victim’s despair, the film passionately demands our attention.
Propelling The Whistleblower into the highest pedigree is the powerful performance by Rachel Weisz. Weisz commands nearly frame of The Whistleblower, and in each scene, Kathryn’s determination registers with heartfelt urgency. Weisz’s courageous humanitarian is possibly the most compelling screen hero this year. Furthermore, The Whistleblower ranks among Weisz’s best work, even surpassing her deservedly Oscar-honoured performance in the equally resonant The Constant Gardener.
In spite of the ineffable greatness of Weisz’s performance, The Whistleblower must be seen because it engages with an important matter that few films have told so well, let alone been brave enough to depict at all. Kathryn Bolkovac’s fight to blow the whistle is cinema in its most important form. When told through the deft talent of a filmmaker as fearless as Kondracki, The Whistleblower is also cinema at its best.
The Whistleblower is now playing in limited release in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and major US markets.
It opens in Ottawa at The Bytowne on August 26th