Sergio (2009) dir. Greg Barker
I can remember vividly the Al Queda bombing of the UN building in Iraq in 2003. The significance of the event other than the heinous act of terrorism was the death of Iraq’s UN Special Representative of the Secretary General. Before Sundance, unfortunately I couldn’t remember his name, but after seeing Greg Barker’s phenomenal film, no one will ever forget Sergio Vieira de Mello.
We know this is no ordinary political figure when two of the first interviewees we see are Tony Blair and Condelezza Rice. They are just two of the dozens of family and professional colleagues of Sergio Vieira de Mello who describe to us his professional life and career.
De Mello is described by his colleagues as a combination of James Bond and Robert Kennedy, an impossibly handsome man, fluently charismatic in at least four languages and a man who could walk into any conflict anywhere in the world and take control – what’s described as the UN’s ‘goto guy. Before his Iraqi mission Sergio had already proven his dedication to peace in a number of war torn countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sudan and East Timor. Though he opposed the U.S. War in Iraq when asked to lead the UN movement there Sergio felt compelled to go. As we all know Sergio was tragically killed in that car bomb which struck the UN headquarters in 2003.
Barker takes a two-pronged approach to tell Sergio’s story. It’s important to know the context of this man, why he was in Iraq and the big picture tragedy of the event. But Barker is clever to intercut Sergio’s life history with the minute-by-minute detailing of the bombing of Aug 19, 2003. Like some of the best films of Errol Morris, and even last year’s great doc thriller “Man on Wire” Barker's procedural recreations are, and sorry for mixing metaphors, page-turning. Barker cuts together impeccably shot recreated footage, and an almost endless number of camera angles from news footage to recreate the day.
The two American military personnel who were at the scene and trying to get Sergio and his co-worker Gil Loescher out from buried rubble are featured prominently. Barker’s documentation of Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine’s efforts to rescue the two men are as brutal, blood curdling, harrowing and heroic as any 9/11 rescue story. Barker and his editor craft these scenes with such drama it drew tears from a sometimes jaded Press and Industry audience.
At the film's climactic moments Barker appears to stretch out the emotion to such agonizing intensity it borders on going over-the-top. The emotional breakdown of de Mello’s mother as she mourns once again the loss of her son almost has the audience begging for Barker to stop the pain.
His death is never mentioned until the end, and so even though we know he did not survive the explosion, in 90mins De Mello touches us so deeply that we mourn his death the same as his fiancé, his mother, or any of the close colleagues of his life. Sergio Vieira De Mello is so extraordinary nothing can overstate the impact of his life. “Sergio” is great film. Enjoy.