Larysa Kondracki’s feature film debut, anchored by an Oscar-worthy cast, is making waves by focusing on the plight of young women forced into prostitution while the international community looks the other way.
by Daniel McCabe, BA’89
Filmmaker Larysa Kondracki, BA’99, has a date with the United Nations.
The director and co-writer of The Whistleblower, a suspenseful, fact-based account of how international peacekeepers participated in the sex trafficking of girls as young as 12 in post-war Bosnia, Kondracki invited UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to screen her movie for UN senior staff (the film is sharply critical of the UN for largely ignoring the girls’ plight). In his response to her, Ki-moon acknowledged that he was “pained” by what he saw in the film and that the UN “could have done better” while overseeing peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. He invited Kondracki to New York, not just to show her movie to UN staff, but to the representatives of UN member states as well.
Last winter, The Whistleblower won the Philip Borsos Award for best Canadian feature at the Whistler Film Festival. Roger Ebert, the Chicago Tribune’s influential film critic, recently praised the movie as “a relentless and frightening thriller.” TheGlobe and Mail called it “riveting.”
That’s all pretty impressive for a director making her feature film debut. Kondracki originally envisioned the movie as a thesis project for the master’s degree in film directing that she was pursuing at Columbia University. “At the time, [fellow Columbia alum] Kimberley Pierce had just come out with Boys Don’t Cry, and there were other movies out there like Monster and High Art that were also made by first-time directors,” recalls Kondracki. “I realized I could do it too. It wasn’t impossible.”
The Whisteleblower stars Oscar winner Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac, a real-life former cop who discovered the horrific abuse experienced by young women forced into prostitution near peacekeepers’ bases in Bosnia. Bolkovac herself was working for a private U.S. security firm contracted by the UN to provide policing services for the region. When she raised uncomfortable questions about the things she was seeing, she received little sympathy from the powers-that-be. Bolkovac’s employer fired her. She went on to win a wrongful dismissal suit and to publish a book documenting her experiences.
“I’m from Toronto and there is a really big Ukranian-Canadian community there,” says Kondracki. “People would talk about the sex trafficking problem [in Eastern Europe] and it was the first I’d heard about it.” Then she read journalist Victor Malarek’s book, The Two Natashas, which dealt with the international sex trade. Among the tales recounted in the book was Bolkovac’s. Kondracki decided to find out more, embarking on a two-year research mission with Whistleblower co-writer Eilis Kirwan that resulted in the pair travelling to Europe and meeting with Bolkovac (the research was funded, in part, by $30,000 raised by Toronto-based Ukrainian organizations).
What she discovered shocked her. “We actually had to tone down some things for the movie. I couldn’t believe what was going on. It was like a Robert Ludlum thriller, but true. There were bars just outside the Americans’ barracks where it was widely known that you could buy a girl. And it wasn’t just the Americans. It was all the contingents – Canadians too. Wherever there are peacekeepers, you’ll find brothels.”
Fact-based films often grapple with finding the right balance between accuracy and the desire to create an engaging narrative – more than a few have earned caustic complaints for fudging too many facts.
“There was no shortage of incendiary material for us to choose from,” says Kondracki. “Nobody has come out and said [the film] isn’t truthful, because it is. We knew we would have to hand in a carefully annotated script. Our struggles all had to do with compression. For instance, Madeline Rees [a UN official played by Vanessa Redgrave who becomes Bolkovac’s ally] was much more involved in the fight than we could show.”
Kondracki, much to her surprise, managed to assemble a very impressive cast for the film – Weisz, fellow Oscar winner Redgrave, onetime Oscar nominee David Straithairn and Monica Belluci. “It wasn’t because of me,” says Kondracki matter-of-factly, “it was because of the script.” When Kondracki got the green light to make the film, reality-based serious fare like Munich, Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck were all contending for Academy Awards. “I feel like I was riding a wave.” Film studios since then have opted to support much more lightweight material, with comic book-inspired films dominating the landscape. Monica Belluci, weary of the sexpot roles she is often offered, jumped at the chance to portray a decidedly unsympathetic bureaucrat in Kondracki’s film. “She couldn’t wait to put on her grey wig and act like an a**hole.”
Kondracki, who drew inspiration for The Whistleblower from such classic fact-based thrillers as Serpico and Silkwood, hopes that serious movies are poised to make another comeback. “The big comic book movies aren’t doing so well anymore, so I’m hoping people are getting sick of them. And I say that as a huge Iron Man fan.”
A drama and theatre graduate, Kondracki enjoyed her time at McGill.
“I remember the repertory theatre at La Cité. I was there every day, watching movies for two dollars. It was the greatest video store ever. I remember working at Player’s Theatre. We had really good funding for putting together productions back then.” One fellow student who admired Kondracki’s theatrical work at McGill kept in touch – Christina Piovesan, BA’98, went on to become a film producer, counting The Whisteleblower among her credits. “We’re known in the business as the ‘polite Canadians,’” says Kondracki.
Not all of her memories of McGill are fond ones, however. “I had to take one acting class and I was just horrendous at it. I had it on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I would feel sick every Monday and Wednesday night. Myrna Wyatt Selkirk [who taught the class] was fantastic, though. I remember her very gently telling me that I might do much better on the other side [of the camera].”
As Kondracki contemplates her upcoming UN appearance, she insists “I’m not an activist.” But she clearly does want her film to have an impact. “I hope it becomes so embarrassing to them that countries have to deal with this.”
Deborah Chow, BA’96, goes beyond Hollywood notions of “good” and “evil” in her first film.
McGill’s thriving student theatre scene has launched many a career.