Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The UN at Work: The Whistleblower

Whether it was facilitating genocide in Rwanda as head of “peace-keeping operations” or ignoring the graft-ridden implementation of the now notorious oil-for-food program, Kofi Annan’s record at the United Nations has permanently stained the organization’s honor. Perhaps most damning, during Annan’s stint as Secretary-General, UN Peacekeeping forces have been plagued with charges of sexual abuse across the world, including deployments in Burundi, Haiti, Liberia, Sudan, and Bosnia. Inconveniently, whistleblowers Ben Johnston and Kathryn Bolkovac publically revealed the extent to which UN diplomats, military peacekeepers, and international police forces were involved with human sex trafficking in Bosnia, accusing Annan’s specially appointed representative Jacques Paul Klein of stonewalling subsequent investigations.

Unfortunately, the names of Annan and Klein are nowhere to be found in Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower (trailer here), which presents Bolkovac’s story as merely a case of rogue cops, almost entirely ignoring the complicity of the UN proper in human rights abuses committed by its personnel. The result is a frequently infuriating but substantially problematic film, which opens this Friday in New York.

Bolkovac was a popular police officer in Lincoln Nebraska, but she needed the quick payday offered by a tour of duty with the UN’s IFP. Bolkovac had lost custody of her daughter (for reasons the film never bothers to explain, though it is repeatedly used to cast aspersions on her). With her ex-husband suddenly relocating and no transfer available, Bolkovac bit the bullet and headed to Bosnia.

Much to her surprise, she found she was one of the few legitimate professionals recruited for the IFP. The local Bosnian cops were just as dodgy, even though law enforcement was their ostensive job. Still, she is able to find one honest cop, whom she helps mount the first Bosnian wife beating investigation to end with a conviction. To its credit, Whistleblower tentatively suggests sexist attitudes prevalent amongst the country’s Muslim population exacerbated the trafficking problem, but never follows up as the narrative progresses.

Quickly Bolkovac learns nearly all her fellow international cops are implicated in the conspiracy, including several who are directly involved in the actual trafficking. She only trusts the Dutch officer whom she also becomes romantically involved with. Still, she has a champion in senior diplomat Madeleine Rees, who taps Bolkovac to head the Bosnian IFP’s office of women and gender issues, probably a dubious promotion in retrospect.

Whistleblower would have arguably been a stronger film had it played it straighter. Not content to make the corporate contractor (based on the real life Dyncorp) carry the scandalous load, Kondracki and co-screenwriter Ellis Kirwin redub them Democratica, just so we do not miss the irony. It also would have helped Whistleblower’s credibility had it been more equitable identifying the nationalities of the guilty. Aside from the Irish Liam Cunningham (who must have signed with Michael Caine’s former agent considering how much work he has been getting) appearing as corporate shark Bill Hynes, all of the heavies are naturally Yanks. Yet in the actual case, the alleged perpetrators were from several member countries, with two of the most notorious being Romanian.

Rachel Weisz is perfectly fine as Bolkovac, quivering on cue to express either moral outrage or mortal fear. Unfortunately, the striking Monica Bellucci is largely wasted as Laura Leviani, a duplicitous bureaucrat for refugee affairs, who comes the closest to being a genuine UN villain. Vanessa Redgrave shows a command of humanist platitudes as Rees, but given her incendiary prejudices, her very presence weighs the film down with further baggage. However, Romanian actress Roxana Condurache is absolutely devastating as Raya, a Ukrainian woman lured into slavery, surely a trying role to assume even in a dramatic context. Through her performance, the audience gets a visceral sense of the fear and degradation such women experience. Indeed, she is the film’s redemption.

Given the seriousness of human trafficking, a crime that continues to brutalize women, particularly from Eastern Europe, Whistleblower really ought to be better, smarter, and truer. Unfortunately, it represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of crimes committed by UN personnel. Ultimately just an okay film that tantalizingly hints at what it might have been, The Whistleblower opens this Friday (8/5) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.