Entries in UN Peacekeepers (1)
Monday, September 19, 2011 at 8:19AM
(HN, September 19, 2011) - As the annual opening of the UN General Assembly kicks off in New York this week, much of the discussions will undoubtedly centre around the behaviour of UN Peacekeepers in more than 20 countries.
The shocking involvement of a group of Peacekeepers sex-trafficking in Bosnia and the subsequent stonewalling by the UN and a contractor was brought into sharp focus this year in Canadian-German co-produced film, The Whistleblower.
The film is based on the experiences of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska police officer who served as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia and outed the U.N. for covering up a sex scandal. Directed by Larysa Kondracki, it stars Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, and Vanessa Redgrave.
HUMNEWS' Michael Bociurkiw spoke with director Larysa Kondracki about the film and the reaction from various quarters.
HUMNEWS: Larysa, please tell us abou the early days of the film... was is difficult to reaise money for movie?
Larysa Kondracki: Well not really. Once I found Kathy's story and this idea I wrote to the Ukrainian community. In three weeks we actually managed to raise $30,000. Then we based ourselves in Ireland - Kathy was based in Amsterdam - and we travelled to Vienna, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria. We spent six months travelling and writing the whole time.
What the ended up happening was that the film was bought by a studio and stayed there for two years; went though a turn-around then went to another studio. It's not that we had trouble raising money it was developing it within the studio system.
Then Canada changed its rules about how it funded films. It used to be that Canada would only fund projects that had to do with Canadian content. But because this had to do with Americans and the outsourcing of peackeeping forces, we just couldn't change it. Once Canada changed the rules we went there and we were shooting within nine months.
It's more of a case that the story is so big it took a long time - there was never not interest in it - it was just a matter of convincing people to actually pull the trigger, and in the meantime, to focus on a very, very, very big story and make it digestible in the context of a film.
HN: It seems the bulk of the film was made in Romania, how did that come about?
LK: It came down to practicalities. It's wonderful that Sarajevo has been re-built since the war. But we couldn't shoot there and not to mention that Bosnia has absolutely no film infrastructure. We were on a very limited budget, so you'd have to bring in all your equipment, all your crews, build sound stages. You'd have to be basically building a studio.
In Romania, however, people had been investing in studios over the last 25 to 30 years, so you have a lot of movies made there now like UnderWorld or bigger sort of genre films that shoot over there. So they have trained crews, big sound stages. And on top of that it looks like Eastern Europe because it is Eastern Europe!
Finally it was a Canadian-German co-production so we had to shoot in a country that was in the European Union. We had to use actors from there, we couldn't use Americans. Rachel (Weisz) is British, Vanessa (Redgrave) also is British.We tried to find Ukrainian actors but it is very hard as they are not part of the EU, and in the end it comes down to financing. Same with the Bosnians - I managed to get an exemption for one - for the man Bosnian bad guy.
Fortunately and unfortunately it's fantastic that these structures and co-production treaties exist outside of the US because it's a fantastic way to make films but you are tied to certain treaty rules.
So in the end it was down to Romania or Hungary, and Romania is cheaper. Another practical
consideration was that we did have to shoot in two types of locations - one was interior UN and the other was out in the mountains and field. In Hungary the distance between the two was over an hour but in Romania they had a studio built that was near the two.
HN: How about the Ukrainians portrayed in the film - where did you find them?
LK: They aren't Ukrainains. Two are Romanian - the aunt and the main girl, Raya, -they had to learn Ukrainian. We had a Ukrainian coach on set. And then the mother and the friend are from Germany.
HN: In the early stages of writing did you eveer imagine you'd get such a big names and Rachel Weisz and Vanessa Redgrave?
LK: In a way you make the film that you want to make...I was picturing Kathy when we were writing and we knew the person, so you weren't really writing for an actress. At that time films like Boys Don't Cry, Monster, and Being John Malkovich - those are all first-time films so it was a really exciting times and it felt really possible to make films...I was confident we would get someone good, as long as we wrote a good script and we were very determined.
HN: There are some very shocking and graphic parts in the movie. Was it intentional, to put across that this really does happen in real life?
LK: We actually toned down what actually happens. This is When Harry Met Sally compared to what actually happens.
The idea, for example, that it is just something that is relegated to the mountains is absolutely untrue. The coffee shop down the street had a bed upstairs. These guys were walking around everywhere with girls - even in the UN headquarters. They actually own these girls outright. One came up to Kathy when one of the girls he had purchased had ran away and he asked for her help!
So we had to chose one or two moments which really outlined the graveness of this depravity and really how awful it is. I think there is no point taking on this subject if you are not going to really explore it and show it properly. I don't think it really has been done that way in mainstream entertainment.
HN: In researching and writing the film, you must have spoken to many victims of trafficking. Did you find that what happened to you also happened in the movie? Where they were very reluctant to speak for fear of reprisals later on?
LK: Oh sure, absolutely. And access to them was very, very rare. And the ones we did speak to were more than not ones that this had happened to a while ago and were just coming through and were happy to talk about it. I mean you don't just pop into an underground shelter and say 'I need to talk to you for a movie." There were arranged discussions and dealt with very sensitively.
HN: I suppose one of the more depressing parts of the movie is at the end, when you read the headlines and get the impression that so little has changed for the good. So have you seen any change in the source countries - for example in Ukraine - where you hear border guards are going to get better training to help stop this kind of trafficking?
LK: There was a big awareness campaign that went out in Ukraine. It used to be much easier to dupe these girls. I think people are much more aware now. It doesnt mean the crime changes, they just find different source countries.
HN: So far are you pleased with how the UN has reacted to your film and its message?
LK: Well the film only came out five weeks ago. At first they tried to deny it, and they said that Kathy was removed for falsifying time sheet information. And that was the response we were getting from as little as a few days before (the leaked memo). They were absolutely not even going to acknowledge the film.
So I wrote a kind of heated letter back and I got a response and I think that's because of all the media coverage. People picked this up so it put a lot of pressure on them. Just the fact that they are acknowledging the film and hosting a screening and it's only been fine weeks. I plan to continue being a pest and I hope the media continues to cover it. At the end of the day the only way you are going to really see any change when people are embarrassed enough that they feel they have to do
something about it.
To be fair, as much as it is the UN's problem, it is also the problem of member states and I have not heard a thing from the US State Department - the ones that ultimately fired Kathay and employed these private militaries.
Kondracki was born in Toronto and studied English and theater at McGill University. She received an M.F.A. in film direction from Columbia University and directed the short film VIKO (2008) which played mainly at film festivals to widespread acclaim. The Whistleblower is her first feature directorial film. She is a Canadian of Ukrainian origin.