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I've been thinking about women a lot here in Toronto, mostly because I've seen so few of them; of the many wonderful colleagues and friends I've spent time with these 10 days, only a handful have been female, and I've been the only girl in the group at a screening or dinner so many times I've stopped noticing. It's the reality of life in the film community, and I can only imagine it goes double for female filmmakers, who aren't particularly well-represented in this year's TIFF lineup (though, are they ever?)
With all that swirling around in my brain I still went into The Whistleblower, directed by first-timer Larysa Kondracki and starring Rachel Weisz, with muted expectations-- I hadn't heard much about the film or even its premise, but figured it would be another standout Weisz performance if nothing else. To my surprise, the movie slayed me. It's not the best film I've seen at the festival, and will struggle to find an audience with its earnest politics and brutal depiction of violence, but The Whistleblower is a fantastic exploration of the struggles of women in a world run by men, all based around the true story of a woman who spoke out against the United Nations' role in sex trafficking in Bosnia.
Weisz, revisiting the kind of international crusader character that won her an Oscar for The Constant Gardener, plays Kathy Bolkovac, a Nebraska cop who takes a job as a UN Peacekeeper in Bosnia entirely for the money. As one of the very few women on staff she takes particular interest when two girls step forward to talk about their experiences as bartenders and sex slaves as a local bar, particularly when it becomes clear that not only are her UN colleagues aware of this vast network of sex trafficking in Bosnia, but that many actively participate in it.
Aided by the UN High Commissioner for human rights in Bosnia Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave) and a sympathetic compatriot in HR (David Strathairn), Kathy assembles all the evidence to expose her crooked colleagues, only to be discouraged, then threatened, then fired by her higher-ups. It's a typical trajectory for any whistleblower story, but with the girls who have told their stories to Kathy still stuck in slavery, the stakes are incredibly high. Without ever drawing blatant comparisons between Kathy's struggle against the male-dominated UN and the girls fighting with their abusive captors, Kondracki effectively tells The Whistleblowwer as a broad story about women fighting back against impossible odds. Kathy may be in an immeasurably more privileged position that the sex slaves, but she's still struggling in the same circumstances that insist on treating women as second-class citizens.
It takes some time for the story to get moving, and a few too many characters wind up giving over-written speeches that break the film's realism, but The Whistleblower moves with great efficiency and power, particularly in the second half as Kathy finds her strength as a crusader for these enslaved girls. Kondracki never shies away from the violence-- one rape scene is as brutal as anything I've seen at TIFF-- but unlike your typical torture porn, this is onscreen horror that serves a clear purpose. It's impossible not to be moved by the film's end, not to mention despondent that, while Kathy eventually was able to tell her story, the global human trafficking industry is only growing.
Kondracki and her producers-- both women-- took the stage for a Q&A with the enthralled audience, several of whom were overcome with emotion thanking them for making the film. Kondracki encouraged the audience to look into human trafficking statistics themselves, particularly since the information is so hard to access in North America, and her producers hinted that distributors have taken interest in the film, which means The Whistleblower may soon find a wider audience. It'll take a canny Oscar campaign based around Weisz's performance to get anyone to grapple with this dark film, but it's a story that demands to be heard. Despite some lapses in originality and narrative slow points, The Whistleblower is a rewarding experience simply for the knowledge that people like Kathy Bolkovac exist.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.
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