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From the Rubble of Baghdad, Sergio

Filmmaker Greg Barker screens documentary tonight


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View the trailer for Sergio, a film by Greg Barker, edited by Karen Schmeer (CAS’92). Photo courtesy of UNCHR/A. Karen Schmeer (below) (CAS’92), editor of Sergio. Photo by Garret Savage

Described as a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy, with good looks and guts, he traveled to resolve conflicts in the world’s most dangerous places.

Sergio Vieira de Mello aided Bengali refugees who fled to India to escape the civil war when he was only 23 years old. A year later, he worked to reintegrate hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees. He trekked minefields to debate with the Khmer Rouge, negotiating the return of 370,000 Cambodians to their villages, and later advocated for East Timor’s independence from Indonesia.

The 34-year Brazilian United Nations diplomat became the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2002. Although he opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, he went to Baghdad to help rebuild the country. It was his last assignment. While working as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, he and 20 members of his staff were killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in August 2003.

As part of BU Cinematheque, a College of Communication program that screens and discusses the work of accomplished filmmakers, director Greg Barker will show Sergio tonight. The documentary, premiering on HBO in May, concentrates on the fateful day when UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed and Sergio struggled, unsuccessfully, to survive.

The HBO tribute is dedicated to editor Karen Schmeer (CAS’92), who was killed earlier this year by a hit-and-run driver in Manhattan. Schmeer won the 2009 Sundance documentary film editing award for Sergio. She is best known for her work with Errol Morris, editing the Academy Award–winning The Fog of War.

BU Today: Why did you want to tell Sergio’s story?
Sergio was an idealist. Whether working with refugees in the field or walking the halls of power, he kept his ideals intact. He was the top United Nations envoy in Iraq, but the film is not about the UN or Iraq. It raises questions about the purpose of our lives. After the bombing, Sergio and the rescuers made difficult choices; seeing that causes people to think about why they make certain choices in their own lives.

What comment on world politics did you want the film to make?
Liberals say I should have been tougher on the Bush administration, while conservatives say I was too tough. Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair appear, but I decided it was not going to be politically charged or an attempt to bring down the Bush administration. The mistakes of the early part of the occupation are available in news accounts, and I don’t like films that have a crusading tone. They preach to people who already agree with the message.

If I can get somebody whose political views are diametrically opposed to Sergio’s or the United Nations’ to care a little bit about this guy and institution, then I’ve accomplished something.

What challenges did you face re-creating history?
Most of the film comprises interviews with witnesses. We spent a year tracking down news footage of Sergio, as well as of the event and its aftermath.

But the key action takes place in the rubble, where four people, including Sergio, were trapped in a hole. There were no cameras there, so we knew we’d have to reenact that. I generally don’t like reenactments, because I don’t think they’re done well. We waited a long time to film them, because I was cautious and aware that we had to do it well.

Karen had an edit of the whole film before we shot the reenactments, so we knew how and where to use those scenes. Then the big question was, who is going to play the rescuers, Bill Von Zehle and Andre Valentine?

We met with Hollywood extras, but they didn’t feel right.

Then one morning I said to Karen, “I’ve got a crazy idea.” She said that whenever anyone approached her with crazy ideas in the editing room, they often turned out to be really great. I said, “What about using Bill and Andre to play themselves?” She said, “You should do it.”

We brought them to a set we built in Los Angeles to simulate the conditions, a steep shaft that was full of dust and debris. We asked them to go through the motions, reliving the moments. And they did. It was intense for them, because it brought back memories, but it was therapeutic too. It was five years later, after they had gone through counseling, so they were ready for it.

The total screen time of the reenactment is eight minutes, but it’s the heart of the film.

You were a journalist. Can you describe your transition to documentary filmmaker?
I was drawn to documentary filmmaking to tell stories that would reach a wider audience and explore deeper human truths and emotions than is possible in news stories.

I had that satisfaction five years ago when I made Ghosts of Rwanda for Frontline. It wasn’t just about what the UN and the international committee did or didn’t do in the face of a genocide; it was a meditation on the nature of evil and how people respond to it.

I look for stories that raise deeper questions about the human condition. Often I find that it’s moments of crisis when people are confronted with choices they never imagine they would face. How they respond is informative to the rest of us who will lead our lives without ever having to face these questions.

Even though most of us were not in Rwanda when the genocide happened, and we don’t have to decide whether to save somebody or save ourselves, we do have choices to make about what we care about, how we lead our lives, and how we treat people.

Why did you choose Karen Schmeer as editor?
I was looking for an editor based in Los Angeles, and she was living there at the time. I loved her editing work, especially on The Fog of War. So I looked her up, and we met for coffee in LA. We hit it off.

Karen worked on documentaries and on narrative films, but she always thought documentaries were harder, because there’s no script. A documentary can be an infinite number of films. The editor must listen to the material and what it wants to become.

She immersed herself in the material, particularly in the interviews. It was like she knew the interviewees, because she had the ability to recall excerpts verbatim. She was able to retell their stories in a simple, coherent way.

What was Karen’s response to the film?
We did a screening at the United Nations with over 700 people, including the Secretary General, lots of ambassadors, and people who knew Sergio. The emotion that was unleashed in the room was indescribable. I’ll never forget the look on Karen’s face, a mix of pride and astonishment that we were able to pull it off.

I’ve only seen Sergio once since Karen died. She is its heart and soul.

What advice do you have for student filmmakers?
If you want to make films, you don’t need a film degree. Karen studied anthropology, and I studied economics and international relations.

Follow your instincts. Work with people and on projects you’re proud to be associated with. And subject matter counts for the films you make initially, because it affects what you learn and how others see you.

Sergio screens tonight, Friday, April 2, at 7 p.m. in the College of Communication, 640 Commonwealth Ave., Room 101, followed by a discussion with Greg Barker. The event, part of BU Cinematheque, is free and open to the public.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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