The Whistleblower is a shockingly grim fact-based drama about human trafficking and forced prostitution in post-war Bosnia, outrages that were carried out with the involvement of some United Nations police and contractors. The movie serves as an important reminder that even what are supposed to be nobly intentioned organizations can become monstrously corrupt without oversight and accountability.
Rachel Weisz stars as Kathryn Bolkovac, a divorced no-nonsense Nebraska cop. She wants to save enough money to move to Georgia and be near her daughter, who lives with Bolkovac’s ex. Unable to get a job transfer, she signs up with the UN police force for a high-paying temporary assignment in 1999 Bosnia.
Bolkovac’s initial culture shock over Bosnia’s bitter Christian/Muslim prejudices and its institutionalized disregard for women’s rights turns into angry disgust when she learns that girls from other nations are enslaved in Bosnia as prostitutes. That disgust turns to horror when she finds proof that some of her UN coworkers and associates not only patronize the places where the girls are drugged, beaten and imprisoned, they also help transport the abducted victims into the country.
Weisz effectively portrays Bolkovac as an in-over-her-head but unyielding outsider. The screenplay — written by director Larysa Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan — does a good job of putting us in Bolkovac’s shoes as she becomes increasingly disillusioned and endangered, but determined to do the right thing.
Vanessa Redgrave plays Madeleine Rees, the dignified and restrained head of the UN Women’s Rights and Gender Unit. Rees appreciates Bolkovac’s efforts, but wants things to be worked out through the proper channels — until she realizes that the system is corrupt all the way to the top. David Strathairn is a quietly supportive Internal Affairs agent whose investigation into Bolkovac’s charges is shut down by the head of the UN mission in Bosnia, who doesn’t want the UN’s reputation tarnished by any unflattering findings.
A plot running alongside Bolkovac’s story follows a naive Ukrainian teenager named Raya (Roxana Condurache), who leaves her country believing she will be getting a job in a hotel. Her actual fate is so unrelentingly depressing that many of her scenes are very hard to watch. An incident of onscreen torture that Raya endures is stomach turningly brutal.
Bolkovac eventually uncovers so many dirty coworkers that the movie becomes an Invasion of the Body Snatchers exercise in trust-no-one paranoia. Although some aspects have been “changed for dramatic purposes,” as they say, the most crucial elements are verifiably and chillingly accurate. And while Raya is a fictional composite, she nevertheless serves as an appropriately tragic symbol of all the abused and hopeless girls Bolkovac encounters.
The most outrageous aspect of Bolkovac’s tale is the final wrap-up, which is dispiriting enough to change even the most devout one-worlder’s positive opinion of the UN. No one who sees The Whistleblower is likely to think of that organization’s above-the-law “peacekeepers” the same way again.