Human trafficking is second only to drug dealing as the world’s most profitable criminal enterprise, but it ranks first in the most heinous because unlike illegal drugs, the actual product being bought and sold are human beings, more than 80% of which are women and girls.
This grim fact is examined in The Whistleblower, the real-life story of a female U.N. peacekeeper who uncovers a sex trafficking network in post-war Bosnia that shocked the world.
In 1999 Nebraska, police officer Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) is struggling to maintain a relationship with her young daughter. After losing custody to her ex-husband, and facing a financial strain to move closer to her, Bolkovac learns about a lucrative job with a private Blackwater-type military contractor. For one year’s work as a UN peacekeeper, she can earn $100,000, tax-free.
Warning: Some spoilers
Arriving in Sarajevo, Bolkovac quickly learns the brutal realities and chaos of post-war Bosnia. Her experience as a cop helps her to navigate the politics within her organization, ignore the indifference of the locals and earn the trust of a woman who is routinely beaten by her husband. Kathryn arrests the man and brings him to trial.
After winning the first domestic violence conviction ever in a Bosnian court, Kathryn is promoted to work for Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), the head of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. It’s then she learns that teenaged girls from Bosnia, the Ukraine, Croatia and other countries are being held as sex slaves in the squalid backroom of a local bar and forced to service the customers, many of whom are other U.N. peacekeepers.
When she starts asking questions, a fellow contracted officer tells her she’s mistaken and then, dismissively, “Honey. It’s like I say. This is Bosnia. These people specialize in f–ked up.”
As Kathryn uncovers the reach of human trafficking, it becomes clear some of her colleagues and higher officials are not only aware of the situation, they are the situation.
Kathryn finally convinces Raya, (Roxana Condurache) one of the kidnapped girls, to testify against her captors and the U.N. personnel who are complicit in the sex trafficking. Before she can testify, Raya is tortured and murdered. Kathryn’s outrage only makes her more determined to bring the perpetrators to justice.
After ignoring several warnings, threats and intimidation tactics, Kathryn is fired.
With the help of Ross and Peter Ward, an American U.N. official (David Strathairn) Kathryn narrowly escapes Bosnia with her evidence, and in 2000, exposes a sex trafficking cover-up that extends all the way to the United States State Department.
Rachel Weisz is tough and astonishing as Bolkovac. Unblinking and able, Weisz brings raw determination to the role, even in the tender moments when Kathryn finds a lover and ally in a fellow agent from the Netherlands. Weisz plays to Kathryn’s strengths and unwavering will to do what is right. She never dissolves. Every obstacle, lie and betrayal only spurs her on more.
Vanessa Redgrave exudes world-weary integrity and civility as only Vanessa Redgrave can. If only she had more to do, other than meeting with Kathryn to pass on the next bit of intel. Monica Bellucci appears as Laura Leviani, a paper pusher charged with repatriating the girls Bolkovac is trying to save. Leviani may or may not be in on the scandal.
First-time director Larysa Kondracki uses implied violence more than the in-your-face variety, which is fine because the subject matter is horrifying enough. Her handling of a side plot about Raya and how she came to be kidnapped is appropriately menacing and adds another layer to show her descent from hopeful teenager to catonic shell, numbed by fear and abuse.
The Whistleblower is disturbing, eye-opening, and sure to enrage even the most cynical viewer, especially after reading the postscript, which details the real-life outcome of Bolkovac’s story.
Watch the trailer for The Whistleblower below:
The Whistleblower opens today in select theaters.