- LOS ANGELES
While deeply familiar as a documentary filmmaker with this particular protagonist and related subject matter, Greg Barker entered new territory when again visiting the life of United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello--this time resulting in the director’s first narrative feature, Sergio, which just made its debut on Netflix.
Barker initially did justice to Vieira de Mello’s life with a 2009 documentary of the same title, Sergio (HBO). The director recalled first coming across Vieira de Mello’s story in 2005 when he got access to some of the early chapters in Samantha Powers’ biography, “Sergio: One Man’s Fight to Save the World.” The book, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, captured Barker’s imagination. At the time he was a documentarian on the PBS series Frontline but from the outset he viewed Vieira de Mello’s life as a narrative feature, citing the scope and emotional intensity of the story as reminding him of--and in some respects sharing parallels in terms of feel and tone with--The English Patient and The Year of Living Dangerously, blending geopolitics with romance, real-world intrigue, and matters of social conscience.
Barker was only able at that time, though, to acquire the documentary rights to the book, and went that route--to great effect as reflected in it garnering a primetime Emmy nomination for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking in 2010, as well as a Producers Guild Award nod, and earning a slot on the Best Documentary Oscar shortlist.
Fast forward several years and Barker was still enthralled with the story. He learned that the narrative rights to Powers’ book were no longer held by the filmmaker who originally had them. Barker approached Powers and was able to embark on the journey he initially envisioned. He had the good fortune to find that independently Narcos star Wagner Moura was drawn to the story as well, having read the book and seen Barker’s documentary. “We met and sort of gravitated to each other in wanting to do this film,” said Barker.
In this screenplay by Craig Borten (co-writer of Dallas Buyers Club), we see Vieira de Mello--portrayed by Moura--as both idealistic and pragmatic in his approach to trying to address conflicts worldwide. At the same time, we see him as a man whose dedication to his work finds him falling short as a father to two sons. We also delve into a man who, separated from his wife, falls in love with UN staffer Carolina Larriera (portrayed by Ana de Armas).
Vieira de Mello’s personal and professional lives mesh in this film, which takes us to Baghdad after the 2003 U.S. invasion. As United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN special representative for Iraq, he clashes with American diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford), leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority. While Vieira de Mello sees himself on a UN mission to facilitate new democratic elections and Iraqi sovereignty, Bremer views the UN as being there at the pleasure of the U.S. But Vieira de Mello asserts the UN’s independence publicly and plans to report in detail U.S. human rights violations against the Iraqis to the UN security council. This all comes to an abrupt halt when a bomb goes off in the UN’s Baghdad headquarters and Vieira de Mello wakes up trapped under a pile of rubble alongside his colleague, Gil Loescher (Brian F. O’Bryne), whom he views as his compatriot, confidante and conscience.
Borten’s script then takes us back to moments in Vieira de Mello’s life, including when he first met Larriera, recollections of his native Rio de Janeiro, and his service to the UN in East Timor when he was called upon to troubleshoot a geopolitical crisis--ultimately yielding remarkable, progressive results, brokering peace between Indonesia, which had occupied the region for decades, and militants fighting for independence. There’s a telling scene when Vieira de Mello asks the Indonesian President to make a public apology to the rebels for atrocities committed. The President starts to walk away, seemingly to end the meeting abruptly, when Vieira de Mello tells him that the way the world views Indonesia and its leader will depend entirely on how he and his country treat the people of East Timor.
Barker’s first foray into narrative filmmaking has been well received as reflected in it making the cut for this year’s Sundance Film Festival, premiering there in late January. Among those he collaborated with on Sergio were Borten, cinematographer Adrian Teijido and editor Claudia Castello.
Barker was drawn to the latter’s work across several films, including those from director Ryan Coogler for whom she cut Fruitvale Station and Creed (in tandem with Michael P. Shawver), as well as serving as an additional editor on Black Panther. Barker said simply of Castello, “she gets the real world,” bringing an authenticity to the work.
Similarly Barker gravitated toward Teijido for his talent for capturing people as they are. “I loved his work on Narcos. When we met, I found that we saw the world in similar ways--even when it came to Iraq. It’s easy to film Iraq as a dangerous place. That’s how it’s typically seen in American movies. But it is also full of people living their lives. We wanted to capture human life. One of the references was The Constant Gardener, shot by a Brazilian filmmaker not in an idealistic way but the way things actually were. He (Teijido) got that.”
Barker’s documentary sensibilities figured not only in his selection of the likes of Castello and Teijido but also in his approach to his first narrative feature. He described his priority as wanting the film to be “emotionally authentic” as cast and crew immersed themselves in Vieira de Mello’s world.
At the same time, Barker saw the importance of doing justice to the world around Vieira de Mello. For example, the movie has many scenes set in Iraq, including the UN headquarters there. He shared that all the extras were mostly Iraqi and Syrian refugees who were brought into Jordan where the filming actually took place. “In a way we wanted to tell their story, not just to use them as background props, to show them from the ground up,” related Barker. “That came from my documentary background.”
Among the major takeaways from Barker’s inaugural narrative filmmaking experience was it reaffirming “the power of empathy. For every project, I ask myself, why tell this story? Why now? Why do I care? We’re in a world that is so divided and empathy is easy to forget. It seems like a soft emotion at times but it is anything but. It’s a way to get through complex problems, seeing another person’s point of view. Sergio saw the world very clearly through his empathy.”
A scene in the movie which embodies this for Barker comes when we’re taken to a refugee camp where a micro loan-funded weaving business has successfully employed local women in East Timor. The scene was actually lensed in Thailand, with extras who were brought in from East Timor. Larriera introduces Vieira de Mello to one of the women whose family has been devastated by the violence yet she has persevered. She shares her dream for the future in which she sees herself becoming a cloud that rains over her homeland. Conceived to recreate an actual encounter had by Vieira de Mello, the scene unfolded in real time, with Moura hearing her wish for the first time as the cameras rolled. “The shared hug was real, his reaction was real and natural,” recalled Barker. “It was such a transformative moment for the cast and it translates well in the film too. We see the other person clearly and find love in the midst of darkness.”
Beyond the two Sergio features, Barker’s filmography includes his latest documentary, The Longest War, which explores the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan over the past four decades. The Longest War recently debuted on Showtime as a companion piece to the final season of Homeland.
Barker’s previous credits include: The Final Year, a feature documentary that captures the emotions and human dynamics within President Barack Obama’s national security team during their tumultuous last year in the White House; HBO’s Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden, which won the primetime Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special in 2013; and the widely acclaimed “Ghosts of Rwanda” installment of Frontline, nominated for a News & Documentary Emmy Award in 2005.
Barker is also represented in the commercialmaking/branded content arena by production house PRETTYBIRD.
Netflix’s Sergio has whetted Barker’s appetite to take on more narrative features in addition to his ongoing documentary endeavors. In some respects, he sees narrative pursuits as furthering the objective of many documentaries. “We live in such a divided political time. Any documentary that touches on politics at all is seen through a partisan lens. And so I think that narrative film can reach across that divide and connect on an emotional level. I’m drawn to stories that are authentic in emotion and can speak to the world as it is.”