Interview: Larysa Kondracki (The Whistleblower)

Interview: Larysa Kondracki (The Whistleblower). By Simon Miraudo.

Larysa Kondracki‘s The Whistleblower tells the true story of U.N. police officer Kathryn Bolkovac, who witnessed firsthand the horrifying effects of the human trafficking industry. Because of her attempts to expose American officers as collaborators in the Bosnian sexual slavery ring, Kathryn risked her life, and ultimately lost her job. Though she was able to successfully sue for unfair dismissal, the local sex trade still thrives. We spoke to Larysa about recruiting Rachel Weisz to star, buying Kathryn’s life rights for $100, and their shared frustration in attempting to bring this story to the world’s attention.

SM: Were there any films you watched growing up that inspired you to get into filmmaking?

LK: Yeah, definitely. Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg. I watched The Name of the Rose a lot, on repeat. I remember Beverly Hills Cop; I really liked that. I was young young. Like, twelve. Then growing up I really liked all those political and human thrillers, like Serpico, All The President’s Men. Things that were based in reality but had this palpable tension because they felt very real.

SM:  You can definitely draw the line between those 70s thrillers to The Whistleblower – a little bit more so than with Naked Lunch. Can you tell me when you first heard about Kathryn experiences in Bosnia?

LK: I’m Ukrainian-Canadian, and before the phrase ‘sex-trafficking’ was really prevalent in everyday language, something was happening to these young girls. This was 2003. A book had come out called The Natashas, written by a Ukrainian-Canadian journalist [Victor Malarek]. People were really talking about this, and I was struck by and blown away by this epidemic. I started researching, and the more I kept reading, suddenly there was a much bigger world to this, including the U.N.’s involvement. I knew I wanted to make a film about this, and Christina Piovesan – who ended up being the producer on this, but who I was working in LA with – heard the story and said, ‘Well, you have to find a way in’. So I kept reading and I kept reading and then I found Kathy’s story. It really uncovered something tremendous.

SM: How many years of research are we talking here, between reading about the sex industry and finding out about Kathryn?

LK: When I first read about it, we moved pretty quickly. Within a month or two I’d raised about $35,000; myself and Eilis [Kirwan], who wrote it together, moved to Dublin – she had a place there – and we travelled around Eastern Europe, and we were writing the whole time. From the conception to the first presentable draft was about two years. And then it was picked up by one studio, and it didn’t work out there, and it was given to another one, and so on. Then we ended up making it independently. So, six years of toiling around in the studio system.

SM: Tell me about approaching Kathryn and making a film about her life. Was she hesitant at all?

LK: No! In my research, I went online and tried to find anything on her. I found her email in a chat-room, and I emailed her and by the next day… I emailed her a very truthful letter, saying I want to make a film about this. The next day she had written me back and given me her phone number. I phoned her and we spoke for a while. She sort of said, ‘Well, if you come out here and you want to talk about this,’ – she was  living in Amsterdam at the time – ‘I’d be interested’. She had just won her tribunal for wrongful dismissal. She’d been in the news in Europe, and a lot of European production companies had approached her, but she wasn’t able to talk about her trial or entertain any film rights’ negotiations. I think it was a case of timing. So Eilis and I flew over to Amsterdam and spoke to her: ‘I don’t have any money, but we promise to tell your story properly, and we won’t tone in down. We’ll work on something that’ll make you proud’. She gave us her life rights for $100.

SM: That’s a good deal. What were the kind of impressions you made of her and noted, and maybe passed on to Rachel?

LK: Kathy came to the set to meet [Rachel]. The thing about Kathy -and it doesn’t really come out in the film, and there were some scenes that we had this in – but Kathy’s a really funny person. She’s a real goofball. She’s down to Earth. It’s there a little bit in the beginning, but once we started cutting the film and once you see those girls disappear, those scenes with her and her lover and her friends, people were going, ‘I just want to know what happened to the girls’. So yeah, I think in real life the thing about her is she’s a lot goofier and funnier and likes to have a good time. I suppose, in reality, this was not a really enjoyable time in her life.

SM: Absolutely. You mentioned that she was goofy, and a funny person, but was there still a frustration on her behalf – now that you’ve known her for all these years – in the aftermath?

LK: Oh, she’s incredibly frustrated. Sure, a movie star is playing you and all these exciting things are happening, and eventually the U.N. recognised the film and screened it at the U.N.  – there was a panel with the secretary general there, who spoke about the importance of one voice. At that time I said, ‘OK, sure, but you still haven’t officially recognised that she was fired for wrongful dismissal’. The U.N. still claimed that she was falsifying timesheets  on paper; that was their official reason. She’s absolutely frustrated. I don’t think the film for her was about… I think she’s happy to have it out there, but I don’t think she needed her side of the story told. She still just wants to continue advocating on [the girls’] behalf and ensuring that there’s some sort of accountability for the police officers or the U.N. workers, because this is absolutely still happening.

SM: You’ve got a really esteemed cast. Not just Rachel, but also Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Belluci and David Strathairn. Can you tell me about bringing everyone together?

LK: It was actually much simpler than it seems. At the end of the day, this story… We went to Rachel; she was the first person we went to years prior, but she was pregnant after The Constant Gardener. The film was around in various incarnations, but then we heard she was still interested; she was thinking about it, and there was a window there, and so we just went. Once we had her and once it was moving, I wrote a wish list and it wasn’t particularly difficult. You mentioned David Strathairn and Vanessa Redgrave – they’re big actors, they’re movie stars, but they’re definitely actors first. This was not a big-paying gig, but it’s rare to find complex and challenging and interesting characters, especially ones based on real life. I think they were all coming to be part of a certain story, rather than just one role. They’re actors that look for challenges, and that continue to challenge themselves.

SM: Were any other actresses attached in the four/five year period that Rachel was unavailable?

LK: There were different incarnations; there’s no point getting into it. We did get a lot of interest at different points.

SM: You filmed in a number of different locations – Romania, Bosnia. What was a bad day on set?

LK: The set’s its own kind of moving unit. It’s just tremendously long hours. As I said, everybody was there because they wanted to be a part of something good. There were a lot of perfectionists on set who wanted to do the best job possible within an extremely limited amount of time, you know? And you’re also shooting in whatever you can afford. I thought the Romanian crews were great, but on the other hand, if you moved the camera a little bit this way, it’s clear that’s not America, or that’s not the U.S. It was a bit challenging finding certain locations, so we had to really shoot in tight corners sometimes. We were constricted a lot, physically, with what we were able to find over there. But it definitely lent the film an authenticity, rather than having big sound-stages where you can create any angle you want. You have to kind of take what you were given.

SM: What has the experience been like in getting your film out there, and taking it to festivals? This has been a big part of your life for a decade now. Do you share Kathryn’s frustrations in trying to make a difference with the film?

LK: Sure, absolutely. On the one hand, it did seem at one point that the U.N. was going to ignore it and we weren’t really going to puncture that, but eventually they did. Right now, they’re continuing to work with the distributors to share the movie around the world. I think the media kind of picked up on it. For me, it’s not over. It’s just coming out on DVD, and I think that as long as it continues to be in front of people, we can really keep pushing it. It’s being picked up a lot. There’s a lot of discussion. The International Criminal Court is thinking about screening it. I hope we can continue to make an example out of what happened – and what is continuing to happen – and I’m seeing that working. Certainly though, on the other hand, I do get a hell of a lot of bureaucracy and I guess all you can do is keep pushing. I’m frustrated, but I want to remain optimistic or you can end up getting too tired.

SM: What are you working on next?

LK: I’m doing sort of another international thriller. Not entirely based on reality, but set in the world of youth activism. The darker parts of it.

The Whistleblower is available on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia from February 29, 2012.

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