After months of back and forth, the United Nations has told director Larysa Kondracki that her controversial film The Whistleblower will be given a special screening at UN headquarters on the week of Oct. 10. After the screening, a panel discussion will address the issue of sex trafficking in post-war Bosnia. It’s an embarrassing chapter for the UN, as the film depicts UN peacekeepers not only turning a blind eye to the trafficking of women forced into prostitution in post-war Bosnia, but actually assisting in the transport of sex slaves over the border and into unimaginable hellholes. This latest development comes as a surprise to Kondracki, who has lobbied for months to bring her cautionary tale to the UN. The film stars Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac, an American police officer who takes a job as UN peacekeeper in Bosnia and not only was shocked to discover the sexual enslavement of young girls, but that UN peacekeepers and private contractors were major customers. Given diplomatic immunity by the State Department when they hired on, the men were never punished for their complicity in the criminal enterprise. Bolkovac, on the other hand, was excoriated and blackballed for exposing the scandal.
Samuel Goldwyn Films began slowly rolling out the film two weeks ago, and Kondracki initially got a frosty response from the UN. She figured out why when she was slipped an internal UN memo, which she shared with me and which indicated how conflicted senior advisers were over whether to embrace the film or run from it. “After the film premiered and there was quite a bit of press, that’s when I was given the memo by someone who works for the UN and we heard they were going the damage-control route,” Kondracki told me. “I wrote the Secretary General, sent him the DVD, and said they were making the wrong decision.”
Kondracki offset the bleak subject matter and hard-to-watch violence by turning the film into a thriller and softening the depiction of abuse that she and co-writer Eilis Kirwan uncovered in their research. The abuse of children, for instance, was too abhorrent to include. “Movies usually Hollywood-ize a problem by exaggerating it, but not here,” she said. “These brothels were everywhere. A guy actually came up to Kathy wanting help because he’d purchased a woman for 4000 Deutchmarks and she ran away and took his cell phone. He was outraged. She asked him, ‘Do you understand how wrong this is?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s OK, I bought her.’ There were gray issues involving ethnic strife, religion and history, there is no gray area when peacekeepers are buying women. It’s horribly wrong. There was an influx of peacekeepers who were well paid, had all this disposable income and nothing to do. I really wanted this opportunity at the UN to discuss issues like diplomatic immunity, and to sit on a panel about trafficking and the UN’s role in it.”
Finally, Kondracki received a thoughtful response from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who acknowledged the movie’s depiction of a painful chapter for the UN. The incidents, he wrote, led to a series of internal reforms and a zero-tolerance policy instituted for UN peacekeepers involving sexual exploitation and abuse. “I welcome your suggestion that The Whistleblower be screened especially for United National senior staff. I propose to go further. I have asked that a special screening be arranged at United Nations headquarters not only for staff but also for Member States, with the full support of the President of the General Assembly. … After the screening, we shall have a panel discussion as the starting point for a frank and honest discussion of the issues the film raises.”