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Greg Barker, “Sergio”: Politics, War, and Moral Complexity

Greg Barker, "Sergio": Politics, War, and Moral Complexity

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

From the Sundance catalog: “Based on the biography Chasing the Flame by Samantha Power, Sergio is the story of the United Nation’s go-to guy. A cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy, Sergio Vieira de Mello could descend into the most dangerous places, charm the worst war criminals, and somehow protect the lives of the ordinary people to whom he’d devoted his life. After a string of doomed relationships, he was about to finally settle down with the woman he loved. And then came the call: another crisis, and Sergio was the only man for the job. Persuaded by Kofi Anaan, Condoleezza Rice, and Tony Blair, Sergio reluctantly took up his post as U.N. ambassador to Iraq.On August 19, 2003, a bomb struck the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, marking a watershed moment in history. For the first time, the U.N. had become the target of terrorism. The news shocked the world. With visceral immediacy, filmmaker Greg Barker recreates the events of a day that will forever live in infamy. Harrowing testimony from Sergio’s fiancee and the military paramedics who risked their own lives to save him is interlaced with haunting footage shot on the day of the bombing and reenactments of the rescue attempt.”

Director: Greg Barker
Executive Producers: Samantha Power, Sheila Nevins, Nick Fraser
Producers: John Battsek, Julie Goldman
Editor: Karen Schmeer
U.S.A., 2008, 94 mins., color

Please introduce yourself…

I’m Greg Barker. I grew up all over California, the son of a Naval officer, and have spent most of my adult life based in London and traveling abroad. We ended up cutting “Sergio” in LA, and so now I’m back in the U.S. with my British wife and family and it’s both wonderful and a bit odd to be back home after all these years. We’ll probably stick around for a while…the weather is hard to beat.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I made dumb Super8 action movies as a kid, then started out my career as a broadcast journalist and news producer. I ended up overseas and soon got hooked on war reporting as a freelancer traveling across the middle east during the first gulf war and in Yugoslavia during the early days of that conflict. I might have turned into a cynical, world-weary correspondent — but instead I got very lucky and was hired as an associate producer on a big PBS series about oil and global politics, and i soon fell in love with the process of documentary filmmaking. That was back in the early 90s and I still think it’s the best job in the world, a mix of journalism, grad school, travel/exploration combined of course with the art of filmmaking. And the insight into the human condition is a deep privilege – I am constantly humbled by the trust ordinary people place in my hands when they tell me their story on camera.

How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?

I never went to film school — my degrees are in economics and international relations – and I’ve learned my craft on the fly, making a point of always hiring the best team i can find, and learning to trust my gut feeling about what i think works on screen. I’ve filmed and worked in more than 50 countries on six continents, and am drawn to character-driven stories that also illuminate how global politics really works — who wins, who loses, what the real priorities are behind politicians’ lofty rhetoric. Along the way I’ve had a few remarkable mentors — the renowned PBS filmmaker Bill Cran, and Frontline executives David Fanning and Mike Sullivan, who taught me how to craft a simple, truthful story out of a complex reality.

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

I lived overseas for the entire Bush presidency, and I’ve seen first-hand how America’s reputation has plummeted around the world – and so I was looking for a story that tapped into my sense that there had to be a more nuanced, balanced approach to global problems other than “you’re with us or against us.” But where to turn? A few years ago I made “Ghosts of Rwanda” for Frontline and in the process became thoroughly disillusioned by the United Nations, which of course failed miserably during the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. Yet I also became friends with many remarkable individuals who chose to devote their lives to the UN, despite all its flaws, because they saw it as the best way to improve the conditions of ordinary people around the world. And I knew Pulitzer Prize-winner Samantha Power was writing “Chasing the Flame,” her book about the UN’s top “go-to guy,” Sergio Vieira de Mello.

A mix between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy, Sergio immersed himself in the world’s complexities, inhabiting the shades of grey between right and wrong, good and evil. From my experience, that’s where real progress in this world is made…and where good stories are often found.

As we met for drinks one evening, Samantha told me about her research into the day Sergio and the UN were attacked by terrorists, in Baghdad on August 19th 2003. I immediately saw the film I wanted to make: a tight narrative focused on the incredible human drama of the search and rescue operation, interspersed with flashbacks into Sergio’s life and career. That’s essentially where the film ended up — but I suppose my biggest (and most pleasant) surprise was the sense of hope that somehow found its way into what is a very tragic story. In a wonderful and entirely unexpected way, it’s an optimistic film about the enduring strength of the human spirit even in the face of the most dire circumstances.

“Sergio” director Greg Barker. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

I was convinced the narrative core had to be the events of August 19th, in particular the three hours immediately after a car bomb exploded directly underneath Sergio’s office. Many of his colleagues were killed instantly, but Sergio was alive and coherent — trapped deep under three stories of rubble next to an American academic, Gil Loescher. Two US Army reservists – both firemen in their civilian jobs – descended a narrow 30 foot shaft to reach Sergio and Gil, and promised they’ll get them both out alive. For me, the dynamics inside that hole and the backgrounds of these four men was a microcosm of different, often conflicting ways of viewing the world — which i wanted to then intercut with episodes from Sergio’s lifestory that trace what brought him to that moment in the rubble. What I found heartbreaking is that Sergio assumed the Bush Administration — having begged him to go Iraq — actually wanted him to draw on his 30+ years of conflict resolution, 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…until on August 19, 2003, Sergio himself became the target.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

I’d never made a feature documentary — all my films to date were for PBS — and I always produced and directed myself, which I knew didn’t make sense on a film of this scale. Luckily, John Battsek of Passion Pictures practically leapt out his chair when I told him this story, and he and our fellow producer Julie Goldman have been invaluable partners, bringing on board HBO Documentary Films and BBC Storyville. This film could not have happened without them.

What are some of your favorite films?

“Traffic,” “Syriana,” “Thin Blue Line,” “The Killing Fields” — films that tell great stories about the world we live in.

How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

The other day I screened the film for friends who knew nothing about Sergio, and several came up to me days later and said they couldn’t stop thinking about him. If I can tell a story that touches people and gets them thinking, then I’m happy.

What are your future projects?

Sleep! Then writing.

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