There are films that sneak under your radar, delivering a blow to the solar plexus that leave you gasping for breath. These films are never big-budget productions from the major movie houses. They don’t have multi-billion dollar budgets, with more spent on publicity alone than the GDP of one of the world’s less fortunate countries. They have no huge star cast, don’t make much money, and they win no Oscars, even if they do well among the less pretentious awards.
And they are the ones who dare to tell the tales the rest of the movie industry would rather forget.
Bosnia, 1999. The civil war is over, though the wounds are still raw. The country is flooded with “peacekeepers” – foreign policemen and mercenaries, not to speak of the UN and its “humanitarian missionaries”. And, of course, all these peacekeepers require rest and recreation, and a section of the locals gear up to provide it.
Enter Katherine Bolkovac, an American policewoman from Nebraska, who has taken a job as part of the UN humanitarian mission. She’s nobody special, certainly no superwoman – just someone trying to do her job as best she can, while leaving a string of failed relationships behind her.
Kyiv, Ukraine. Her name is Raisa, Raya, and she and her friend are recruited by a relative (her mother’s brother-in-law) for employment abroad, which will pay better than her mom’s dead-end job as a saleswoman. It’s strange that the job should involve false papers and new names, but they have no choice, if they want the jobs. And, being young women in search of money and adventure, they do.
There’s a peculiarly nasty kind of prostitution which involves women being trafficked like commodities, bought and sold literally like cattle. It’s one of the things few people like to talk about, yet it’s incredibly common worldwide, and especially so where economic opportunities are few and young women plentifully available. It’s all over South Asia, where Nepalese and Bangladeshi girls are the commodity of choice. And it’s all over Europe, with the Eastern European Slavs supplying the women.
These aren’t the elegant call girls of popular supposition, who gracefully accompany businessmen to parties and relieve them of astounding amounts of money for a few hours of turbo-charged sex. They aren’t the hookers with a heart of gold of the kind John Steinbeck wrote of in Cannery Row and Sweet Tuesday. They are, without exception, very young and very terrified women who are housed and treated worse than slaves, who try desperately to survive another day, and will do almost anything to be granted the privilege.
This is what happens to Raya. One of the large number of women at an institution known as the Florida Bar, frequented entirely by the foreign “peacekeepers”, she is kept in a room with other half-starved women, routinely beaten and forced to spend her nights “entertaining” at the Florida Bar, only to be raped by American and Western European mercenaries and UN personnel who can do just as they please with the women as long as they pay cash down. (In fact, as the locals are under night curfew, her clientele is entirely comprised of foreigners charged with keeping the peace.)
In the course of her duties, Katherine Bolkovac comes to know the story of Raya, and of the other women. She becomes aware of the incredible corruption that runs through the system, with the owners of the prostitution racket routinely paying off the police to make them look the other way. She has to come to terms with the heartlessness of the UN itself, which will not send Raya back to her frantic mother in Kyiv – because she doesn’t have a passport. She comes to know that just about everyone in authority knows exactly what is going on, but will do nothing about it.
So she sets out to gather the evidence herself, and to bring it to the notice of the world. Does the world wish to listen? What do you think?
This is not a fictional story. Katherine Bolkovac really exists. The mercenary corporations whose personnel used the women as animated sex dolls really exist, in the form of DynaCorp, which is still employed by the Empire in its wars of occupation around the world. The Eastern European women are still turned into sex slaves in the brothels of Europe (and Bolkovac apparently stated that in reality they were far younger than those shown in the film). The vicious criminal organisations which trade in their lives and bodies really exist. The official callousness and apathy? We see it everywhere, every day.
About the acting. Rachel Weisz puts in a superb turn as Bolkovac, the sensitive policewoman trying to do her job, who goes from open-eyed naïveté to bitterness and despair; and Monica Bellucci does a fair job as a cold and heartless UN woman. Most of the other actors are competent. But my vote goes to the actress playing Raisa, Roxana Condurache. She doesn’t have many scenes, but she owns each scene she does figure in, and without the slightest bit of overacting. She makes you care about what happens to her, which, for a character whose primary function is to act as an “enabler” for the lead actress to move the plot along, is no mean accomplishment. You can feel her despair and fear.
Warning: this isn’t a family-friendly film, it has graphic nudity, sexual violence, and murder. Even the version I saw, which had obviously been gone over by the Indian censors, had all of this; and I’m certain the original must have had even more.
One of the nicest things about films like this – it’s a Canadian production, incidentally – are their ruthless honesty and refusal to let the facts slide in favour of a good story. If this was Hollywood, or Bollywood for that matter, you’d know in advance who’d win, and you’d spend the movie waiting for the inevitable triumph of Truth, Justice and the
American Way whatever it is they’re plugging now. Because it isn’t Hollywood, you have a far more nuanced tale, where there aren't necessarily answers to questions; where the villains don’t necessarily suffer and the good guys don’t necessarily win. See it for yourself.
But be prepared to be outraged. Be prepared to cry.