Interview with Greg Barker, Director of Sergio

When the Oscar shortlist was announced there was one film in particular I instantly scanned the list for. Sergio has had an extremely successful festival run over the last year but hasn’t seen the fanfare that others on the shortlist have enjoyed. That, however, is sure to change when this incredible story is finally broadcast to a wider audience.

The last few years have seen more campaign-driven documentaries than ever but we’ve also seen the rejuvenation of genre-styles being brought back into documentary filmmaking, Man on Wire and The Cove being two examples. Sergio bridges both of these categories as it shows the work of the UN through a focused character-driven film, at the same time broaching a thriller style with the film’s rescue scenes.

It’s a beautifully made film and Sergio Vieira de Mello is an incredible character, a rare real-life hero. Director Greg Barker has kindly given the Documentary Blog an interview, which is below the jump. A former war correspondent, Greg’s films include the award-winning Ghosts of Rwanda and several other investigative films for the flagship PBS series “Frontline.” Sergio is his first feature documentary.

From the official synopsis:

Sergio revolves around the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello – the world’s “go-to guy,” a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy who’d probably seen more misery, more human suffering than any man of his generation.

In the summer of 2003, Sergio, a dashing 55-year old Brazilian career diplomat, was the only senior United Nations official able to charm the notoriously anti-UN Bush Administration. Urged by President Bush, Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice and Kofi Annan to lead what was ultimately a flawed UN mission to Iraq shortly after the invasion, Sergio was the only individual who had successfully led an occupied nation towards independence…in East Timor, just two years before.

Sergio assumed that the Bush Administration — having prevailed upon him to go Iraq — actually wanted his advice and he set about trying to end the occupation as soon as possible.  Instead, he found himself accused by the growing insurgency as being a tool of the Americans…and on August 19, 2003, Sergio himself became a target.

A huge truck bomb exploded directly beneath his office, instantly many UN employees, including members of his own “A Team.” But Sergio himself was alive.


How did you come across this story?

I’d known Samantha Power for a number of years because I’d made a film about Rwanda and the genocide and she’d also written a book about it, which won the Pulitzer. So going back to about 2003 she began researching an article which then became a book about Sergio, we were talking about a film and it kinda fit with subject matter that I wanted to deal with in a film. Because I’m American, but I’ve spent so much of my life overseas, I was looking for a film that dealt with how we view the world. It seemed like the way Sergio looked at life and his ability to see in shades of grey rather than black and white spoke to issues that I wanted to address. The problem was I didn’t see a story in his life for a long time and as she and I talked over the years and she did the research for her book, it wasn’t until near the end of her research when she sat me down and told me what her research had uncovered about what had happened on his final mission to Iraq, on the day of the 19th, that I saw a film I wanted to make because I saw a narrative structure on which you could hang a lot of elements of the back story. It was a long time in the making and then a way to do it sort of clicked in my head and then I got very excited and started writing a treatment and getting all the rights.


The film uses a large amount of archive from all over the world, was the archive difficult to accumulate?

Yes it was, it took us a long time. I had an amazing team and we worked on that for well over a year. Some of it was straight forward but trying to find the archive that really gave you a sense of him and his personality was time consuming, but very satisfying in the end. We started a global search for any footage of him. We put out a big call to try and think of any cameras that would have been in Baghdad on the 19th of August and luckily it was before things got really bad there, so there were a lot of news crews that could still move around fairly freely.

There were actually a lot of cameras there so we got footage from Al Arabiya and other Arab channels and smaller freelancers and stuff like that.

Some footage of Sergio took us a long time to find, there’s a little clip of Sergio and Carolina (Sergio’s fiancé) running along the beach in East Timor that took us 7/8 months to track down, I think Carolina told me that she remembered a freelance cameraman that followed Sergio around for the last two weeks he was in East Timor, that was all we had and then she found a photograph of the guy in the background of another photograph of Sergio, and he was there in the background. We circulated the photograph to everyone we knew in South East Asia and finally we found out who this guy was and he was a freelance cameraman. Nobody knew where the rushes were and we tracked those down and turned out those were rushes for another film that didn’t even involve Sergio and they were in somebody’s garage in Melbourne and it was owned by this retired producer who went into these boxes and found them for us and that footage arrived after we had onlined the film, so it took a long time.

Where did the difficulties lie in making this film?

On many levels it was a smooth and often enjoyable film to make. One of the toughest challenges going in was that I knew if I couldn’t find footage that really brought him to life it would be difficult for the audience to connect with him and some of the initial footage that we got from the basic trawl the archive was kinda dull because he was often kind of formal, in press conference situations. He would be quite stiff and official, so you didn’t really get a sense of him.  So it was just asking around and it took a while and I was really relieved when we found stuff that brought his personality to life. The re-enactments were really tricky and convincing some of the people we had in the film to open up was really hard, that took a long time. There were a lot of things that we hard to do and we were lucky that we had a few breaks and co-operation from people, but it was hard to do. It was a hard film to make.

Was it hard to get the soldier’s involvement, because their testimonies with the reconstructions work so well and their emotions and reactions were so fascinating. Were they difficult to get hold of and were they keen to be part of the film?

They were pretty keen actually, they weren’t too hard to get hold of. Samantha had talked to them on the phone, she had never actually met them, but she had talked to them so we knew how to reach them. But it was a process to get them to agree and to then get them to open up for the film in the way that they did and one of the interviews, I wont go into details, but one of the interviews started and the interviewee had just come off an overnight shift and was tired and he was good but I knew he wasn’t as passionate as I knew that he might end up being. I did interview him for a couple of hours but I stopped the interview and said “ look I think today is not the day” and there were problems with the location, it was too loud and it wasn’t as intimate an environment as I like to create when I do these interviews so I said ”look we’ll come back another time”. We re-scheduled that interview for three months down the road and we did that and that’s the interview that worked and I think it was almost that willingness, on our part, to do what the interviewee needed that made him feel comfortable. Getting people into that state where they want to tell their story and are willing to go to the emotional depths that they go to in the interviews, they have to be able to trust me and the whole project to do that and that takes time. You’re asking people to really reveal themselves and that’s a huge responsibility.

Was there any involvement from the UN while you were making Sergio and have they seen the film?

Yes on both counts. The UN is a big huge bureaucratic institution but elements of the UN were incredibly helpful. The UN high commission for refugees where Sergio spent a number of his years, they opened up their archive to us and helped us research some footage. They were very cooperative and I think, we didn’t work closely with the UN with the making of it, but they helped us wherever we needed. They have seen it, we actually did a big screening at the UN with the Secretary General in attendance and a lot of ambassadors, including the American ambassador Susan Rice of the United Nations, in attendance and that was an amazing experience. To be in that building in New York where so many people knew Sergio and loved him and were inspired by him was just so powerful. And afterwards, Samantha and I and the Secretary General, went to this little shrine that they have in the lobby of the United Nations which is the tattered flag that they had over the UN headquarters that day, which has the names of Sergio and the other UN employees that were killed and we had a few minutes of silence there. So it was very powerful and I’m sure we’ll be having other screenings at the UN before we broadcast it on HBO next spring.

From the feedback of the people that worked with him at the UN, have there been any comments that have surprised you?

Not all of them have seen it yet as we’ve just been playing festivals but a number of them have. I think it’s, I wouldn’t want to put words in their mouths, but I think they’ve been very moved by it and I think his family in brazil was very moved by it. I think it’s hard for some of them to see someone they knew so well and were so close to up on screen, it’s a strange process and it’s a very close relationship. He was very close to a lot of his staff so I think sometimes its hard when a story someone’s very close to is made more public. Its almost like one is somehow losing some of that close connection to the subject when. So I think that can be awkward.

The thing I love most about the film is that towards the end you don’t have his friends or family eulogising him in any way, but you do have the soldier’s letter to Kofi Annan and that does that perfectly. To have somebody that had such a brief time with him and how moved he was by the event goes beyond the people who knew him and shows the effect he had on people.

Right, that’s right, that’s why that letter that Bill writes is just so powerful to me. Yeah he didn’t know him, he just spent those last hours with him and he’d only interacted a couple of times with him in the UN headquarters but not really in an official way. Sergio had a deep impact on Bill, and I guess on Andre, but particularly on Bill who felt inspired by how he behaved in those final hours. Yeah, it was an amazing letter.

What were your main considerations when approaching the reconstructions?

I’m generally not a big fan of re-enactments in documentaries. I think they’re often too on-the-nose, or trying to achieve a production scale beyond the scope of a tight budget, and it often shows. But on the other hand, I knew at the outset of this project that if I was going to tell the story of the rescue attempt, in particular what was going to tell the story of the rescue attempt, in particular what was going on inside the rubble, that I would have to do some re-enactments. There was of course incredible news footage from the day, there was even a camera rolling at the news conference inside the UN building when the bomb goes off, but obviously there were no news cameras inside the dark, cramped 30ft deep abyss where the rescue attempt was taking place.

So, my main concern from the start was that the re-enactments not be ‘bad’. I kept saying to my DP, Patrick Fraser, and my producers John Battsek and Julie Goldman, that I just don’t want them to be cheesy. They have got to somehow fit with the feel and the emotion of the film. And so giving it a sense of authenticity without it feeling like it was a movie recreation, I think that was the hardest thing to do and we waited for a long time to actually film them. We filmed the re-enactments very late in the editing process, so we actually had a very tight edit of what the soldiers were saying so we knew what we needed.  Andre and Bill agreed to do the recreations themselves and I was thrilled.  And that was incredible and even though, audiences don’t always realise that it’s Andre and Bill actually doing the re-enactments themselves, I do think audiences sense an authenticity about the way they move and the way they comfort themselves is the way that fire-fighters and soldiers move. It felt authentic and I think it felt authentic to all of us that we weren’t projecting our own vision of what it might have been like down there onto their stories because they were actually doing it themselves.

We built a set in LA according to the specifications of what it was like from some of the photos and other footage that we had of the tunnel, that were taken after the event. So we knew what it would look like and we’ve got a great production designer who did it, so when Andre and Bill walked onto the set they felt like they were back there and were able to put themselves back in that moment. I think that was probably the hardest thing, to create that space and that environment where they were then able to forget about the film crew and go through their interactions that day and they were totally in the moment when we filmed it all.

We filmed in very long takes almost documentary style, with a couple cameras going simultaneously so we were just capturing things as they happened and it was extraordinary. They were really there, they had all the emotions back in that moment. They had all the crew in tears. That was amazing, and there was one moment where Bill, well we had an extra to represent Sergio so they could have something to play off of. And there was one moment where Bill got down on his knees and apologised to the extra, the Sergio, for not rescuing him and said something like “I’m sorry man, I promised I was gonna get you out and I didn’t and I’m really sorry”.  Everybody was in tears and Bill was totally back there, he was just reliving the moment and even though we weren’t recording dialogue he was still just living it, it was an extraordinary experience. On just a personal level it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in this job.

It must’ve been incredibly tough for them to have done that again.

It was, it was, although they were both really glad that they did it. I’m not a psychiatrist but I’ve talked to people who work with people that have gone through post traumatic stress and particularly rescuers that have gone through traumatic experiences like that and they have said to me that it’s a good thing to do and probably one of the better things they could have done to help them come to terms with what happened. I think it was difficult but I know they’re both pleased to have done it.

I didn’t have to convince them, I just called them up, I had this idea that I should have them do the re-enactments and I think, gosh, I don’t know how to ask and I asked and they both said yes immediately, which was amazing, but I think they both kinda wanted to. For both of them, I think it’s safe to say, it was a defining moment in their lives.

Where else is the film being shown?

It’ll be on HBO in Spring 2010 and the BBC sometime after that. Of course we premiered at Sundance back in January, and we’ve had an amazing festival run all over the world. We recently had Sheffield and IDFA and Dominican Republic and we’ll do a few more festivals here in the US, like Palm Springs in January.  We’ve done a lot. The most amazing on a personal level was Rio about a month ago in a big cinema with Sergio’s family, and his mother came for the beginning and got a huge round of applause from the crowd and that was an amazing experience to see. For a lot of Brazilians, he wasn’t amazingly well known in Brazil when he was alive, and now he’s becoming much more well known. The film will have some kind of wide distribution in Brazil and a lot of people there see him as a national hero and their national heroes are usually football stars etc, which is great, but Sergio’s a different kind of Brazilian hero. We really wanted to get that out there and it was amazing to see the crowd’s reaction in Brazil.

Sergio Trailer on Vimeo.

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