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Interview with Greg Barker

Sergio Vieira de Mello

HBO

Outside of diplomatic and political circles, Sergio was not a widely known public figure. What drew you to him?

Greg Barker

It's true that Sergio was not a well-known international figure. But I think that in some ways he was one of the most important people of the past thirty years that most people haven't heard of. He often worked behind the scenes in a lot of the world's hotspots. He probably saw more war and human crises than any other person of his generation. And if you think back the last thirty years, all the world's crises from Cambodia to Kosovo to Iraq to Rwanda, Sergio was right in the middle of it. So the scope of his career was fascinating. But what really made him fascinating is that he was just an extraordinary individual. Complicated, charismatic, idealistic, pragmatic, a lover of life, a lover of women--all the characteristics that make just a compelling character for a film, and that's really what drew me to him.

HBO

How did you first cross paths with Sergio's story?

Greg Barker

I had made a film about Rwanda some years ago, and in the course of doing that met some amazing individuals, sort of the real heroes of the international world out there, people who we don't really hear about who are doing incredible, idealistic work, and standing up for their principles. Some of those people went on to work for Sergio. And through them, I became familiar with his work. I also was friends with Samantha Power. She was a professor at Harvard, and knew Sergio, and after his death started writing a book about him. So I was intrigued by his story, but honestly it wasn't until I learned of the events surrounding the final hours of his life that I saw a way into the film. The story that unfolds in the rubble after the attack is simply one of the most extraordinary human dramas I have ever encountered. And in the course of the film we learn more about Sergio and the journey that he took that led him to that moment when he was the target of the attack.

HBO

In the late 60s in Paris, Sergio was kind of a revolutionary himself. After joining the United Nations, he eventually finds himself put in charge of the reconstruction of East Timor. It seems like many people would have abused that power, and lost their ideals. Sergio didn't. Why do think that is?

"What I found most admirable in him is this ability to work what I call the shades of gray between right or wrong, good and evil--but to immerse himself in the world's complexities; to revel in the complexities."

Greg Barker

Sergio had this incredible ability, which he honed over the course of his career andá through some very hard lessons, that idealism alone is not enough. Idealism does not stop a war criminal who's bent on doing terrible things. The amazing thing about Sergio is that a lot of us are idealistic and even radical in our youth and then become more worldly or jaded with time. Sergio grew as a person intellectually, but he never lost his youthful idealism. He sort of shed his Marxism and shed the baggage of all of that.

But he kept his ideals intact. And fundamentally for him, what was most important was the idea and the cause of human dignity. And that was something much deeper to him than human rights, which often become very legalistic. Sergio believed that everyone was entitled to a dignified life, which means shelter, food, a job, not being stuck in a refugee camp for decades; basic human dignities. And he believed that the way to advance that was by getting his hands dirty and finding real-world, practical solutions. And that meant that he would have to deal with people who he would have condemned in his earlier incarnation as a student radical. People like President George Bush, who Sergio charmed during a meeting in the Oval Office just before he was sent off to Iraq. It meant dealing with--on the total opposite end of the spectrum--someone like the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal leaders who had been responsible for almost two million deaths in Cambodia. Sergio decided that to bring Cambodian refugees home who'd been displaced by the war there, he had to deal with the Khmer Rouge and bring them to the negotiating table. He was the first Western official to do that. And he did it successfully. And he was criticized by a lot of hardcore human rights idealists who thought that he was compromising his beliefs. Sergio would always listen to them and would take those criticisms on board, but he always came down to this idea of advancing human dignity and getting results through real-world solutions. What I found most admirable in him is this ability to work what I call the shades of gray between right or wrong, good and evil-but to immerse himself in the world's complexities; to revel in the complexities. And to never lose sight of his idealism, but still try to find ways of actually getting results.

HBO

In the film, Sergio's nephew tells a story about asking Sergio why he did this kind of
work, and put himself in harm's way. Sergio smiled, but didn't answer. What do you think
that smile said?

Greg Barker

I think on one level he thought he was invincible. He'd been so many places; he'd seen so much war, he felt he could survive anything. I think also, on a deeper level, he was acutely aware of the risks that he was placing himself in, which is one of the reasons he didn't have his family with him as he was moving along through his career. Having said that, I think he never anticipated that the institution he loved so much, and to which he had devoted his life, the United Nations, would one day be the target of the kind of attack that happened on August 19, 2003.

I think Sergio had this belief--perhaps a na´ve belief--that the United Nations was seen by all parties in a conflict to be neutral. And he firmly believed in that neutrality and that he was there to serve the people, not to take sides. But he knew the dangers. Somebody asked him once how come he didn't wear a bullet-proof vest. And he would say, "Oh, those things make you fat." It was flippant but also, he would not wear a bullet-proof vest if the people he was meeting also were not protected. He didn't want to pretend that he was more important than they were. He realized that to be effective he had to be in the field confronting the world in all of its complexities and all of its dangers, and that inherent in that was an element of risk.

HBO

What do you hope audiences take away from Sergio's story?

Greg Barker

I've always said that this is a story of hope. And I believe that that's what people will take from it: the sense of inspiration that they get from Sergio's life, and also from the incredible bravery that the rescuers display in the course of trying to save him. It's an inspirational story. I've also found that people feel not just touched by the bravery that they've experienced watching it, but feel compelled to do something with their lives.

I had one experience at a film festival where a young medical student had gone all the way out to her car, was about to drive away, and parked the car again, came back into the theater, and said, "I just have to tell you that this has changed my whole perception of what I want to do with my life. I want to get out there in the field and do something." Which is what Sergio was all about: get out in the field and do something. For him, the field meant the whole world. But I think also for me the lesson is actually deeper: it's that all of us can do something in the field, whether it's our neighborhood, our community, and for some of us, the wider world. But Sergio and the rescuers in the film are people who took enormous risks and put themselves on the line for other people. Often for people they didn't know at all, but they just felt like they had to do that. And I think that's an example for us all. It's an inspiring message. And along the way, you know, we tell a great story and we immerse people in amazing characters. But I think, in the end, the message is one of inspiration.

Sergio