Aspen Filmfest: Shades of gray color ‘Sergio’ |

Aspen Filmfest: Shades of gray color ‘Sergio’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Cambodia / Voluntary repatriation / First returnees arriving in Phum Ku, Funipec zone, under the watch of UNHCR's Sergio Vieira de Mello / UNHCR / A. Roulet / 15 September 1992
UNHCR/A. Roulet | 1992

ASPEN – Sergio Vieira de Mello would seem to be everything a filmmaker could ask for. The Brazilian-born diplomat was leading-man handsome, charismatic and idealistic. His job took him to exotic, dynamic locales from East Timor to Cambodia to Iraq. He died a tragic, violent death while pursuing heroic work with the odds stacked against him.

And yet when filmmaker Greg Barker began talking to Samantha Powers about the possibility of making a film adaptation of “Chasing the Flame,” Powers’ book about de Mello, he was hesitant. It wasn’t a case of not finding a story, but of seeing too many strands, none of which stood out.

“To be honest, I didn’t see a film in there I wanted to make,” said Barker from his home in Los Angeles. “It was, Which part of Sergio’s life do you focus on? He’d been everywhere in 30 years, and you didn’t know what to put your attention on.”

That changed when Powers told Barker about the final chapter in her book. It was the part that told of de Mello’s death, when a car bomb, apparently targeted specifically for him, exploded outside the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad where de Mello was serving as the Special Representative in Iraq.

“I saw a way in right then, the narrative spine of the film,” said Barker, a California native who spent 20 years based in London, working on films involving international politics and global issues. “I got the basic structure in my mind right away.”

Barker does indeed build his documentary “Sergio” around the assassination of de Mello. The film, showing Saturday at Aspen Filmfest (with an additional screening on Sunday in Carbondale), moves back and forth from the rubble where de Mello lie for three hours before dying to episodes from the diplomat’s postings in Asia and Europe, to talking head testimonies – mostly from his fiancee, Carolina Larriera – about de Mello’s commitment to improving the world. The juxtaposition creates a compelling, and disheartening, dramatic angle: Here is a person who has devoted his life to bringing peace to the world, about to die – along with 19 others – from a bomb attack.

But perhaps the film’s most interesting component stemmed from the research Barker conducted subsequent to hearing about the final chapter in “Chasing the Flame.” De Mello, it turns out, was nearly rescued by two American soldiers, Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine, who did manage to save Gil Loescher, an expert on refugees who was trapped alongside De Mello. The two rescuers were different people, with distinct views on the nature of their work. Valentine, a devout Christian, wanted de Mello to pray with him; von Zoehle wants to leave God out of the picture and stick to the business of getting de Mello out safely. The two spar, gently but pointedly, in their talking head appearances, and the conversation broadens the scope of the film to include how differing views on religion can pit people against one another.

“They’re both heroes,” Barker said, noting that Valentine and von Zoehle both acted as themselves in the re-enactment of the rescue effort. “But they embody different American world views. And the dynamic between the two of them is dramatic, interesting.”

Eventually, Barker came to see that de Mello himself was a fascinating enough person to warrant a documentary. He was one of those larger-than-life presences who take on and then embody big issues.

“I could feel, the way people talked about him were reflections on something else: charisma, idealism, bravery. And also a lot of human flaws,” Barker said. “It was almost a microcosm for a much bigger story. Because I’ve lived overseas so long, I was looking for a story about how we see the world. The ‘us-versus-them’ viewpoint of the Bush administration – I’d seen a lot of that. Sergio, for me, is an approach that emphasizes the shades of gray, the in-between stuff.”

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