The much-anticipated biopic among United Nations watchers, “Sergio,” a drama relating the tale of Sergio Vieira de Mello, opened today on Netflix. It features the actors Wagner Moura as Sergio and Ana de Armas as his partner, Carolina Larriera.
Who was Sergio Vieira de Mello? And why is he the subject of a Hollywood production – surely a first for a UN official?
Sergio, as he was known, was by all accounts an extraordinary member of the international civil service. He was the UN’s own James Bond, armed with only charisma and ideals, an archetype of a humanitarian and the troubleshooter of choice. He spent decades navigating the world’s worst hot spots, dealing as deftly with heads of state as with génocidaires. In the process, he struck a good number of the UN’s rare successes, earning him the admiration of many among its workforce and far beyond.
“Sergio was an inspiration to so many of us – and still is,” says Michael Keating, a former UN special representative to Somalia who now leads the European Institute of Peace in Brussels.
Sergio died on Aug. 19, 2003, with 21 colleagues in a terrorist attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad. He was, at the time, the UN special representative to Iraq, on temporary leave from his post as the UN’s human-rights chief, based in Geneva. He was 55 years old.
Since 2009, Aug. 19 is observed annually as World Humanitarian Day in honor of humanitarians killed on duty.
“I was personally close to some of those colleagues, including their leader, the incomparable Sergio Vieira de Mello,” said UN chief António Guterres on World Humanitarian Day in 2018, marking the 15th anniversary of the attack in Baghdad. “This was a huge personal loss to so many of us.”
JUST TOO MUCH TO TELL
The new Netflix film, which debuted on April 17, is based on a 2008 biography, “Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World,” by Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, academic and former war correspondent, who later served in President Obama’s cabinet as the US ambassador to the UN.
She tells of how Sergio, the son of an itinerant Brazilian diplomat, begins his career with the UN Refugee Agency at the tender age of 21, in 1969, after graduating in philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris. Failing to obtain a philosophy teaching position, he visits a friend in Geneva and winds up at the UN almost by accident, reluctantly and with no intention of staying for long. But he becomes a passionate humanitarian while on his first field mission, in newly independent and war-ravaged Bangladesh.
Sergio’s humanitarian and diplomatic journey eventually takes him to Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Peru, Lebanon, Cambodia, the Great Lakes region of Africa, the Balkans, East Timor and finally Iraq, with intermittent postings in New York and Geneva. He learns, succeeds against expectations in volatile environments and improves people’s lives by daring, inventive and risky schemes, from traveling to the remote jungle to negotiate with mercurial mass murderers, to mounting a clandestine operation to smuggle hundreds of people out of a besieged city, a few at a time.
The film “Sergio” concentrates on his time in East Timor and in Iraq, according to the screenwriter, Craig Borten. “I was looking for a section of his life that I could concentrate on because there was just too much to tell in terms of his accomplishments,” he told me in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
In East Timor, heading the UN authority that shepherded the country to independence, Sergio was de facto head of state, or “benevolent dictator” in Power’s telling, charged with the full administration of government. The country’s progression to independence in 2002 remains an often-cited UN success story.
In Iraq, where Sergio was sent to deal with the aftermath of the US invasion, he sought to counterbalance the centralizing tendencies of Paul Bremer, the American administrator of Iraq who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority. Sergio wanted to empower Iraqis to take charge of their own fate, which did not endear him to Bremer.
The film revolves around a “fever-dream” and “waking dream” dynamic, Borten told me. Buried under the rubble of the Canal Hotel, the UN building in Baghdad hit by an explosives-rigged truck, Sergio comes in and out of consciousness. This structure enables the past and present to dovetail off each other, merging the raw tragedy of Sergio’s killing with his impressive life story, Borten said.
A LONG, ROCKY JOURNEY
The meeting of minds that led to this film is nearly as storied as the life of its subject. Power and the film’s director, Greg Barker, are both former war correspondents. They met in 2001 while they were both researching the 1994 Rwandan genocide — Power for her book “A Problem From Hell,” published in 2003, for which she won her Pulitzer, and Barker for a documentary, “Ghosts of Rwanda,” which aired in 2004 and featured Power.
Power had met Sergio in Bosnia, in 1994, when she covered the former Yugoslavia while he was posted to the UN mission there. “Before I met him, I was told he was a cross between Bobby Kennedy and James Bond,” Power, who is now professor of global leadership, public policy and human rights at Harvard, wrote to me by email. After Sergio’s death, she set out to learn from his example. “I knew in the post 9/11 world that I needed to learn from Sergio’s life.”
Barker never met Sergio but knew of him by reputation and knew others close to him. A couple of years before the US invasion of Iraq, Barker spent some time there. “I spent a month-and-a-half in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, I was one of five Americans in the country,” he told me by videoconference, at my home in Haarlem, the Netherlands. “I am not excusing the American war,” he said, adding, “but the Saddam regime was abhorrent, I’ll never forget the fear in people’s eyes.”
Barker thought that there might be a silver lining to the US invasion if it meant putting an end to the Iraqi dictator. “Then Sergio was killed, and I remember very clearly that day, hearing the news, I was out in California, as it happens, and I’m wondering how it’s going to affect the outcome in Iraq.”
Even Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general then, wondered how the fate of a whole nation would be impacted by the death of this one person. “We have played a vital role [in Iraq],” he said at a press conference days after Sergio’s death. “But we did because of that personality. Because of Sergio being who he is. I had only one Sergio.”
Power and Barker had struck up a friendship. She would send him chapters of “Chasing the Flame” as she was drafting them, while teaching at Harvard and working for Senator Obama at the time. “As she was sharing some of those early chapters, he [Sergio] kind of leaped out of the page. I saw in his life a kind of scope and a life lived large, and at the same time an internal struggle over who he was,” Barker said. “So really I saw, right away, a movie, a narrative feature that I wanted to make.”
That became a documentary in 2009, also called “Sergio,” directed by Barker, with Power as a consultant. But the documentary alone was not enough to satisfy Barker’s yearning to tell Sergio’s story. “I loved that film, but there was a lot of unfinished business for me as a storyteller.”
In comes Wagner Moura, a bit of a leftist revolutionary at heart who grew up in rural Brazil. We spoke by videoconference from his home in Los Angeles. “The UN always fascinated me since I was a kid,” he said.
Moura has been involved with the International Labor Organization, a UN agency headquartered in Geneva, since 2013, before he became known for his role as the Colombian drug chief Pablo Escobar in the series “Narcos.” Since 2015, he has been a goodwill ambassador for the agency, helping to combat modern slavery in Latin America.
In the middle of the 2010s, according to the production notes for “Sergio,” Moura was looking to embody a positive Latin American figure after having portrayed Escobar. A colleague, Brent Travers, who had read “Chasing the Flame” and watched the 2009 documentary, recommended that Moura look into Sergio Vieira de Mello, whom Moura knew about vaguely.
Sergio was Brazilian, like Moura. “Sergio is not known in Brazil, the way he should be,” he said. “He should be considered as one of the most important Brazilians of the 20th century. Sergio is a character in our history that I want people to know about.”
Moura was also drawn to the tragic circumstances around Sergio’s death. “The UN didn’t want to be in Iraq, Sergio personally didn’t want to be there, the UN was against the invasion, Sergio was the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Coalition was disrespecting human rights, as we all know, in Iraq. There are so many contradictions in that part of his life,” he said.
By chance, a friend of Travers, Daniel Dreifuss, also a Brazilian, had met Barker in 2013 and the pair were exploring a narrative drama based on Sergio’s life. It all came full circle. Through Dreifuss, Travers and Moura were connected with Barker, and the four of them set out to make “Sergio” with Borten, the screenwriter, and de Armas, Moura’s co-star.
The filming began in the summer of 2018, in Rio de Janeiro. The crew then moved to Jordan, which doubles as Baghdad, and onto Thailand, where they shot the film’s East Timor scenes.
“Like many film journeys, this has been a long and rocky one,” Power wrote to me.
Asked whether she could have foreseen her biography, “Chasing the Flame,” turned into a drama feature, Power said, “I don’t think the words ‘UN official’ and Hollywood blockbuster generally go together, so absolutely no, I did not imagine this.”
INDIVIDUALS, NOT STATISTICS
A key theme of Power’s biography is Sergio’s empathy and strong sense of purpose. His life is dotted with instances of persistence and circumnavigation of the UN bureaucracy for the sake of people in need.
“Sergio paid attention to human dignity more than virtually any senior official I have come across. Instead of seeing statistics, he saw individuals,” Power said.
“This film could not be better timed,” Power added, as the Trump administration this week announced it was withholding funding to the World Health Organization in the middle of the pandemic. “Sergio had really timely lessons to teach, and it turns out those lessons are needed today in 2020 more than even when I wrote the book.”
What are those lessons, I asked Barker. “Sergio was a guy,” he said, “who probably saw more war and human suffering than anybody of his generation, and yet remained an optimist. He wasn’t naïve, he was idealistic but looked for practical solutions. And I think people are hungry for that kind of leadership today. That’s what I think Samantha means.”
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Dali ten Hove writes for PassBlue in his personal capacity. He is a reporting officer in the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was the researcher on the memoir of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World.” He also was part of the UN’s 75th-anniversary team. He has worked in peace-building with Cordaid in The Hague and has served on the boards of the UN Associations of the Netherlands and the UK and has consulted for the World Federation of UNAs. He has a master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University.