It’s not often that a director receives a letter from the United Nations secretary general. So when Canadian filmmaker Larysa Kondracki released a damning movie about the UN’s complicity in sex-trafficking in postwar Bosnia, she expected the organization to continue to pretend the scandal never happened. Until the envelope arrived in the mail, that is.
On the day she speaks to the Straight, she’s understandably psyched that her movie, The Whistleblower, might actually affect some change. Speaking from L.A. about the letter she just got from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, she explains: “It says he was saddened and would look into it, and he’s organizing a special screening at UN headquarters in New York.”
The Whistleblower, now playing, tells the real-life story of Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a Nebraska cop who goes to Bosnia as a peacekeeper in the early ’90s and uncovers a sex-slave ring that serves her colleagues. When she tries to expose it, DynCorp, the private contracting firm that hired her, tries to get her fired.
“Until now, the UN has said: ‘Sorry, she was just a woman who handed in false time sheets,’ ” Kondracki explains.
Kondracki is all too aware that the issue of human-trafficking is not easily solved. The director spent two emotionally draining years researching the topic in Eastern Europe, speaking to victims, visiting safe houses, and meeting with aid workers. She is still shocked at the scope of the problem.
Ironically, Kondracki and cowriter Eilis Kirwan felt they had to play down some of the film’s facts to make them more believable. She decided to have Bolkovac slowly discover the use of sex slaves by peacekeepers when, in fact, the practice wasn’t hidden at all. The real Bolkovac told Kondracki about an incident at training camp, before she even left the U.S., when a man returning from a mission to Bosnia bragged about knowing where to score 12-year-old girls. There were bars with sex slaves right outside the American barracks and the Italian barracks.
“Men would be walking around UN headquarters with girls,” Kondracki says.
Working closely with Bolkovac, who now lives in the Netherlands, the director’s goal became trying to portray what human-trafficking really is, showing young Ukrainian girls as they are lured into slavery.
“The concept that you can snatch a girl and put her into a brothel seems impossible to people,” explains Kondracki, whose own Ukrainian heritage sparked a special interest in the problem in that country. “But there’s a psychology there: that you have to really scare a girl into submission. It’s a process called ‘desensitization’. Once a girl had left her home country, they would bring them and huddle them together for a two- or three-week process of rape, burn them behind the ears and under the feet in inconspicuous places, to the point where the girl loses all hope and understands she’s really being held captive.”
She says that’s when the captors use the “weapon of hope”, telling the girls they can “buy” back their freedom by performing acts on customers—only that freedom never comes.
Weaving that process into a movie with complicated political intrigue that implicates the UN and the U.S.’s private contracting-out of peacekeepers was a challenging task for the first-time feature director. They are issues that continue to be a problem, from the Congo to Afghanistan, and ones that have—until The Whistleblower—been largely hidden.
“I wanted people to be outraged but didn’t want to drive them away,” Kondracki says of her goal. “If the public talks about it, that’s when things happen.”
Watch the trailer for The Whistleblower.