This month, beginning May 6, HBO television will premiere its riveting documentary “Sergio” based on the book “Chasing the Flame” by Samantha Power about the Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. The film includes notable interviews from refugee and aid experts, and surveys Sergio’s life in brief. Giving short shrift to much of his United Nations work at UNHCR, and does not discuss OCHA, it primarily conveys the message that he was one of the first in to Cambodia in the late 1980s to negotiate with the Khmer Rouge, and then was a participatory and sympathetic leader of East Timor after its independence and UN trusteeship.
Over half of the screen-time is devoted to the circumstances of Sergio’s death in Iraq. Film viewers learn more about searching through collapsed buildings than about the U.N., but it’s a story well-told with gripping personalities and a firm narrative arc.
Greg Barker, the film’s director, took the decision to anchor the story around the compelling search-and-rescue operation by two humble and heroic US army medics: Andre Valentine and William von Zehle, who struggled to find and extract Sergio after he was buried in the United Nations compound that was bombed on August 19, 2003. These two U.S. soldiers, neither of whom knew Sergio, share the frustration of finding him alive at the bottom of a shaft. They succeed in rescuing refugee-scholar Gil Loescher who was buried with Sergio. But no heavy equipment was available to dig for Sergio during the 3 hours that he held on from massive internal bleeding.
After a long and distinguished career primarily in humanitarian aid, Sergio had been appointed in 2003 by Kofi Annan to head up the new U.N. operation in Iraq. Sergio did not wish to stay long in the position and sought to return to his more permanent global U.N. assignment as the High Commissioner for Human Rights which would have positioned him to be a future Secretary General. The most powerful moment in the film was prior to the bomb attack when Sergio forcefully explained at a press conference in the same building that would bury him that he and his office were independent and not a tool of the U.S. Government, a message that may well have convinced would-be bombers from choosing a different target than the U.N., had they heard it. The documentary did not take sides about the war in Iraq, nor refer to casualties of Iraqi civilians or those in any of the other crises touched by Sergio. Nor did it mention refugee expert Arthur Helton, who was also killed in the same bombing.
Much of the strength of the documentary derives from the original interviews with individuals who worked with Sergio, such as Dennis McNamara, who led UNHCR’s protection work for a long time. Somewhat ironically, it features Richard Holbrooke who takes credit for Sergio’s selection to head the UN operation in East Timor, ironic perhaps since Holbrooke has been criticized in his role as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia for allowing U.S. weapons to continue to flow to Indonesia in 1977, after Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, which it would occupy until 1999.
In an advance showing at the U.S. State Department in April 2010, attended by numerous U.S. refugee officials who knew Sergio, as well as Samantha Power, it was noted that he specialized in listening to all persons and sides, even within the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, making him the rare individual in a bureaucracy who was liked by everyone. Barker also made the excellent documentary about the Rwandan genocide, “Ghosts of Rwanda”, which is useful for classroom teaching and discussion. “Sergio” teaches little about the United Nations, or complex emergencies, or aid operations and is less useful to learn from. The key message of Sergio’s career, the film advances, is the value of being willing to talk with combatants, rebels and even those guilty of war crimes.
Steven Hansch is a member of the board of the World Hunger Education Service, serves on several other non-profit boards, teaches about humanitarian aid at several universities, and has worked overseas conducting nutrition and public health programs, primarily in emergencies.