I watched this film for the first time last night. It’s an important film which I hope more people saw than I fear did (I suspect it was not a mass entertainment even if it played in mainstream cinemas). It’s a kind of Helen Mirren Prime Suspect film made more realistic and done with ensemble type acting. I’m only a year late (it’s a 2011 film) for a review, and trafficking is as pervasive as ever, plus collusion and downright activity by those who are supposed to stop it themselves doing it.
Rachel Weisz plays the part of a American (mid-western) police woman who simply will not not do her job; she has real integrity and will not go through the motions pretending in order to collect a salary and remain prestigously within the group. She goes to Bosnia fora career advancement (yes) and also to do good work in an environment where she might be really needed. One night she encounters a group of beaten prostitutes who look terrible and understands that these are trafficked women; one is very sick. She attempts to send the
one to the hospital and the others to safety. She is just one person; while she is taking the group herself to a safe hospice, she cannot be in the hospital; she goes there to discover that the girl cannot be sent home because she lacks papers. Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac is never for a moment put off by such patent lies. She replies, so what? we’ll get her papers. No we can’t do this, the rules say … She finds herself up against a wall. She returns to the hospice to
discover the girls have been returned to the bar.
Unlike Jane Tennison who then would have to go through a long plot to discover that there are paid kick-backs everywhere (which come to think of it shows her were we thinking realistically to be very dim), Kathryn immediately sees that they were returned by the UN peacekeeping authorities because at least one person, probably more was taking a kick-back. What she has to learn (and without much trouble) is that many are taking bribes, and many of the men who are peacekeepers are the very men buying these women and abusing them under the guns and whips and other hard mean weapons of the women’s keepers.
The plot-design of the story is then three-fold, and is a realistic mirror (reminding me of Five Days where the mirror was a domestic life situation of lower middle class people in the UK). It was not to discover that (in the words of Madeleine Rees, or Vanessa Redgrave, who again has chosen to be in this kind of exposing movie — Coriolanus‘s this), that “those hired “to protect the vulnerable are raping them themselves”, buying and selling them themselves. This is put before us again and again in the evidence, as vignettes, incidents we see as simply obvious.
It’s rather to show us as watchers how formidable is the opposition to putting a stop to the traffic. We see this in each of the groups Kathryn tries to contact.
It is also to show us the realities of Kathryn’s life and how this is part of why she does what she does and how this private life of hers can get in the way or the police life change her private life. And to show us the girls being ruthlessly beaten, humiliated, tortured, and to put before us photos of these girls.
The movie opens with how one specific girl, Raya, was brought into these groups: one night she was out late with a friend, got involved sexually with someone, her friend pressured her to come out after the time she was due home. She went home and got into a quarrel with her mother, and then ran out into the night. That was the end of her life; the next time we see her she’s in a bar and is one of the girls that Kathryn encounters. To make the story effective the movie focuses on one girl’s story.
We see her mother is contacted by Kathryn or representations, how she begs money from her other daughter to go to the hospital. How the other daughter is beaten by her husband and is afraid to give her mother money (it’s not hers). But she does it. How the mother is too late. Then in a later scene we see the mother home again reviling the daughter as a cruel sister for this second daughter’s husband was the man who enabled the boyfriend that night to kidnap Raya.
As in Story 6 of Prime Suspect (“the Last Suspect”), like Helen Mirren, Kathryn has promised to keep the vulnerable girl, here Raya, safe. After Raya is snatched back, we see her dragged before the girls, thrown on a table, & knifed in the back (not killed but just scarred for life) before the other girls to show them what will happen if they try to talk to police or are willing to testify. So like Tennison, who loses first one sister to a brutal killing (and then the other alas), Kathyn is driven to make good on her promise somehow. In a scene near the end of the movie, at last Kathryn reaches one man who will raid the bar &promises not to return the girls. Once there though another group of men rush in, override this man and his crew, and Kathryn seeing Raya begs her in front of everyone to come away with her. Raya is too frightened and refuses. Later that night the same man who led the group in knifing her, takes her before the other girls and simply shoots her through the head.
She has become the lover of one man early in the film and he remains a confidant. We are told in a series of intertitles at the end of the film how all we have seen is real (just souped up for drama), how the real Kathryn now lives with Jan in the Netherlands. Apparently it was not safe to return to the US or Jan, this man’s name, was Dutch and wanted to stay in the Netherlands. A small part of the ammunition against Kathryn (this suggests this kind of loss of reputation does not count as much as women might fear) is her private life. She lives freely and has lovers. Goes to bars herself. But as an upper class (it’s understood in context) white American woman. In one interview a superior tries to needle her about a second story the movie opens with: her ex-husband has custody of her daughter. She was deemed less fit than he; he made more money; he could provide a conventional home with a stay-at-home wife/mother.
Kathryn lives in another state from him and one motive for going to Bosnia was the larger salary which could enable her to move back near her daughter. We see her job get in the way of keeping promises to her daughter to go to this or that occasion. So her story includes separation from her daughter and loss and one motive for her wanting to help Raya is she identifies with Raya’s mother (she says “I keep seeing Raya’s mother”). She also is enacting the mother she did not in US circumstances. This is parallel with Mirren who has had abortions and tries to be a mother where her job and wider usefulness and the life she wanted to lead would not permit her to have a baby, especially without a husband, a kind of relationship Jane did not really want.
The opposition. Those trafficking. Those using the women sexually, brutally. This provides the real action of the film, the hinge-points, the stages of excitement and danger. We see how gradually Kathryn is cut down. She is demoted, She goes to this or that chief officer and realizes very quickly they are protecting their men (and themselves too perhaps). Madeleine Rees (Redgrave) and Peter, another of these very few males who help women stop the trafficking, in effect Rees’s side-kick helper, are frustrated by what happens to Kathryn.
After Kathryn realizes one cannot working within the system (well, duh), and writes an email outside to a high official in a UK embassy, her ID and keys are taken away from her. She is now not just fired, but cannot go into the building to get her files. She must sneak in. She tries to get a woman friend to help her but the woman friend says I’m not you, I won’t risk my job. All do keep telling her it’s not safe, but like Mirren as Tennison, Weisz as Bolkovac seems to lead a charmed life. We might say fairy tale, but in fact Kathryn Bolkavac survived. (Part of the power of this film is it’s a real story transposed into action drama.) Well we see Peter help her.
A crucial turning point occurs as she is walking out of the building with her papers. We see Fred Murray (David Hewlett), aone of the lead man who fired her with Peter and Peter appears to have double-crossed her. She must turn over the bag. But they talk and Murray sneers at her. A few seconds later (scenes are short), Peter comes from behind to give her the bag. He was enabling her to get a tape of this man’s voice as part of her evidence when she returns to the UK.
There we see the interviews on TV with Bill Hynes head UN man (Liam Cunningham) who denies all complicity (as he said he would in another scene). He justifies this in a separate scene as enabling the UN to carry on. But what is it carrying on for? We also are told by him how much money is at stake, how the companies behind much that goes on in Bosnia of a money-making nature are Bosnian, and we know it’s his job.
We then see Kathryn on TV accusing Hynes of lying. The judge does side with Bolkovac (as happened in real life) and we are told (intertitles) all the specific individuals found guilty where deported back to their original countries. But no one was imprisoned, no one punished. And then we are given the huge numbers of people involved in trafficking and enslaved that continues on.
The acting does not bring Rachel Weisz so very centrally to the camera; we do not dwell on her nor on her life interwoven in the same way as Prime Suspect. There are a number of scenes (of Raya’s life, of Raya’s mother’s actions, of the girls’ lives either beaten, or in the bars, or Weisz’s eyes going over the photographs (reminding me of a film by Bergman where Liv Ullmann’s eyes go over photos and a narrative emerges) where Kathryn is not the central point of view.
Most of the time in Prime Suspect, Mirren is. That’s how they keep the plot-design a mystery. But the effect is very good as we feel a real sense of a large world on the screen. Weisz is herself a fierce presence, she has subtlety when needed, is tender, is of a wiry build (so has the requisite thinnness wanted of younger actresses). I feared for
her again and again. So that held me. I cared about her.
I do like Weisz because of the films she’s in. My students learn a lot from The Constant Gardener; I learned a lot from Agora, neither of whom survived. Agora did exist for real and she survived a bit longer than Tessa, but then she was upper class, attached to upper class men.
I also cared intensely about Raya who is last seen dead, with wounds all over her body, in rags in the wood. Prime Suspect often opened on a scene like this. The wounded murdered corpse of a woman badly dressed.
And about the other girls whose voices, faces, bits of presence emerged now and again.
It’s no coincidence this is a film directed by a woman (Larysa Kondracki), written by a woman (Eilis Kirwan), centrally produced by three women (Amy Kaufman, Christina Piovesan, Celina Ratray). The men in the film every once in a while dismiss the trafficked women as whores. That word is enough. They are now without status.
Thinking about it brought home to me why I found a book like
Nussbaum’s Rival Queens (which I reviewed, and which review I will put online after it’s published) in such bad taste; & what’s wrong with books like Pullen’s Actresses and Whores (which unlike, Nussbaum’s seeks to upgrade the status of whores I will concede (Nussbaum just wants to separate her star actresses from prostitutes). Also those many online sites where feminists who want to stop prostitution are scorned and told they are imposing their prurient values on a profession that makes money and these girls chose and even do well at. Nussbaum, Pullen, and many others who insist on distinguishing courtesans from prostitutes. This so that they can write with admiration and pride about their favorite courtesans (be they actresses, or Renaissance poets, e.g., Veronica Franco, Gaspara Stampa, or today’s high-paid and high-class call girls) are imposing on a huge population, most of whom either are right away or become desperate victims (unless they escape very quickly) the luck of a few in just the way we are told to admire unqualified capitalism because a few succeed spectacularly and the rest clearly didn’t “have” their gifts, energies, strength of character, are inferior in some way, when the reality is the difference between the very few and the rest is where you are born, your class (circumstances, connections). The girls in Bosnia and the third world are like the proletariat in the third world, not fringe hangers-on on the tables of the powerful (the edges) but treated with open raw exploitation, and in the case of prostitution the job is to answer with your body whatever the average man wants of you.
So it’s the difference class makes this film teaches us, how terrible is the violence accepted across the world aimed at women, that it is simply felt by many men women are dispensable and to be used where possible (where class and location allows) like animals and then discarded when inconvenient.
And of course like many of Mirren’s films, the politics of the fable shows us those who are pretending to help the vulnerable (of whatever type) are either in collusion with the murderers & rapists & imperalists or themselves actively central.
The DVD includes a feature where we see Kathryn Bolkovac today, we see a woman involved in trying to stop trafficking, the director, screenplay writer, Weisz and Redgrave talking. Trafficking of women continues to be featured and discussed in many womens’ venues: see Women’s enews. This film has helped allegations against the UN to stop, but has it ended trafficking.
See also cross-cultural collaboration.
I cannot recommend seeing this one too highly and telling everyone you know to see it. Like Mirren’s films, it is entertaining because of the melodrama, excitement and the use of a powerful strong female hero or heroine at its center. I never thought I’d begin to love police-procedural type stories, but I have. I did not like many of the older mystery type novels with heroines at the center when they seemed frivolous and shallow and about retreat and upholding establishment values (Agatha Christie). A new breed of women’s film is among us and it is a re-write of male type films which we may hope males go to see, enjoy, and learn from too.