Many view Sergio Vieira de Mello as the embodiment of true humanitarianism. While the Brazilian diplomat’s drive to help the truly powerless people of the world is a major focus of director Greg Barker’s film debut, Sergio, his death is also used to highlight what a complete mess the situation in Iraq has has been from day one.
“I don’t think anyone can predict what the human cost of such a war will be, but it will be high by definition,” Vieira de Mello says in archival footage, sadly predicting his own fate and clearly laying out the documentary’s thesis.
Few career politicians will ever have the same mass appeal as Vieira de Mello. Since the beginning of his career in the late 1960’s, he has been described as anti-American, neo-Marxist and “revolutionary to the core.” Yet his work has been praised across the political spectrum, from numerous humanitarian organizations to former President Bush and his administration.
Much of this respect is due to the fact that he was largely unaffected by the games played by many to advance their political careers. In 2002, he was appointed the U.N. Transitional Administrator in East Timor, a role that is described as having “all the powers of a dictator.” Yet he “never dictated anything,” and instead chose to to help the former Portuguese colony transition into a state of democracy through leadership that was widely accepted by the Timorese people.
Sergio is broken into three recurring segments: a eulogy for a charismatic diplomat who some considered “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy,”a criticism of U.S. foreign policy and a tense retelling of the three-and-a-half hour struggle to rescue Vieira de Mello and other survivors after a terrorist attack on a hotel in Iraq.
These segments work well together to create a logical flow through the documentary; however the rescue mission portions feel a bit bloated. While the use of footage filmed during the attack and interviews with rescue workers create a strong sense of urgency, the story gets bogged down by minute details at certain points. Barker makes the mistake of assuming that detailed descriptions of the hotel’s post-bombing layout are as interesting as the legacy of the film’s protagonist.
Sergio does a great service in documenting the life of a great humanitarian. Barker occasionally strays off course into insignificant subject matter, yet when he focuses on the important areas of Vieira de Mello’s story, he does so in reverent, respectful way, without turning his subject into an infallible idol.
Milwaukee Film and HBO Documentary Films present a free screening of Sergio, Tuesday, April 27 at 7:15 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre. Tickets are available at 4 p.m. on Tuesday on a first-come, first-served basis. Director Greg Barker will also host a Q&A after the film. To learn more about the film, visit the official website.