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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

Greg Barker's 'Sergio'

An unheralded hero gets his due in a powerful documentary.

January 17, 2009|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Sergio" is two movies, one that you expect and one that you don't, and that potent combination makes this a documentary of exceptional power.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival tonight and due to play on HBO later this year, "Sergio" is in part a look back at the career of the United Nations' Sergio Vieira de Mello, the intensely charismatic master diplomat considered by director Greg Barker as "the most important guy you've never heard of."

An ultimate problem solver with so much star quality that Samantha Power (whose biography is the basis for the film) calls him "a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy," De Mello would be worth a film under any circumstances, but the story of how he died is as exceptional as his life.

The target of a truck bomber who attacked U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in 2003 with the specific intent of killing him, De Mello remained alive but buried in the rubble for more than three hours. The narrative of the two very different Americans who attempted to save him is what makes "Sergio" the moving story it is and what motivated Barker to make the film.

A maker of television documentaries for such series as PBS' "Frontline," Barker says that "from the beginning, from when I first heard the story of Sergio's death from Samantha Power, I saw this story differently. I saw this as a way to do something much deeper, to tell a compelling human story. The structure of the film, intercutting Sergio's back story with the narrative of his final day, immediately popped into my head."

"Sergio" doesn't stint on delineating the Brazilian-born diplomat's accomplishments during his 34 years at the U.N. These include negotiating with the Khmer Rouge so that 400,000 Cambodians could return home and a two-year stint as the man in charge of East Timor, guiding that nation's independence from Indonesia.

Though De Mello dealt with so many shady characters that he'd joke that his autobiography would be called "War Criminals, My Friends," he never lost sight of the ultimate objectives.

"He was the world's go-to guy, he'd probably seen more wars, more human misery than any man or woman of his generation, but he was able to set that aside, not let it destroy him, and instead use his passion, his idealism to affect change," Barker explains. "Traditionally, there's a split between idealists and realists, but he had a foot in both camps; he used the best qualities of each approach. Not many people can do that."

Though he was strongly against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, De Mello found himself in Baghdad, where he was targeted by Abu Musab Zarqawi because of the U.N.'s role in breaking East Timor away from Muslim Indonesia. After the bomb went off, De Mello was buried in rubble at the bottom of a deep hole along with Gil Loescher, a civilian expert on refugees. That is where two very different soldiers, Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine, attempted a rescue.

"Both of these men were firemen and paramedics in civilian life, but they were different kinds of Americans, with different ways of looking at the world," Barker says. "But as different as they were, as much as they disagreed, they were able to put all that aside and focus on what needed to be done."

Von Zehle, a member of the Special Forces reserves, comes off as practical and level-headed, while Valentine, in Barker's words, is "a complicated figure, someone who prides himself on being good in a crisis but is also a devout evangelical, someone who is really motivated by that."

As both men worked feverishly to free the two who were trapped, Valentine's religion became a factor. As he relates on camera, he crosses verbal swords with De Mello as to whether the trapped man should be praying. "Personally, I think he crossed the line," Barker says, "but I'm deeply in awe of what he achieved."

The problem both men faced is that the Iraqi fire department's rescue equipment had all been looted, and the U.S. Army, which had never planned for civilian emergencies, had come to Iraq without any. The two men ended up using a woman's purse to haul rubble out of the hole. "It's one of the ultimate Iraq stories," the director says. "It tells you everything that was wrong with the occupation."

The heart of "Sergio" is its emotional interviews, not only with Von Zehle and Valentine, but with De Mello's fiancee, Carolina Larriera, also in Baghdad at the time, interviews that Barker says "were hard, very deeply disturbing and draining, like therapy."

Equally difficult emotionally are the film's artful re-creations of what happened in the hole, re-creations that Valentine and Von Zehle agreed to participate in. "While this was happening, Bill was so in the moment, he apologized to Sergio for not getting him out," Barker says. "That was so moving, so inspiring, everyone was in tears."

--

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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