The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Sergio.
The story of how this film came to fruition is really remarkable: You directed a documentary of the same name in 2009, based on a book by Samantha Power. Since then, you’ve directed several more documentaries. But now you’ve returned to this story, and this time you’re doing so through narrative filmmaking.
Greg Barker: When you look back, it’s kind of hard to believe it took about fifteen years from the time I encountered the details of what ultimately became the documentary— Samantha Power was writing her book, I had spent a lot of my life living and working overseas, first doing journalism and then doing documentaries, and I knew people who had known Sergio serving in Rwanda and East Timor and elsewhere. And I knew Samantha from some work I had done on the Rwandan genocide, which dovetailed with her first book. And she was sharing these chapters about a book she was writing about Sergio. There was something about the scope of his life— the choices he made, the personal struggles that he had, his ability to see the world in all its complexity but his inability to see himself that really spoke to me. At the time I was making documentaries for Frontline, and I saw this as a feature doc that we could take to HBO. And we made it, and it worked, but there was something about the story, and Sergio’s internal story, that always spoke to me. And eventually, the narrative rights to Samantha’s book came up in 2011. I got those rights, and then started trying to make a movie. And eventually, three years ago or so, I found out that Wagner Moura was interested! And we kind of found each other, and obviously, that was like this perfect coincidence of events. And we realized on a long Skype call that we had the same ideas about the world, and about the film, and about the character that we wanted to unpack… and now here we are.
I’m just letting her story move me, because what she was saying was so truthful and so profound.
There is a scene with an East Timorese woman, a non-actor named Senhorinha Gama Da Costa Lobo, that is completely amazing. Wagner, can you talk about that scene, and about casting that role?
Wagner Moura: I think that’s my favorite scene in the film. That was the most difficult casting we did. Because what she says in that beautiful monologue… those lines were taken from Samantha’s book; it was something a woman had said to Sergio in a refuge camp in central Asia. I personally think it’s very weird when you see a film about refugees, or human rights abuses, or other types of vulnerable people, and you never actually meet the people. You only talk about them. So it was very important for us to have a scene, where Sergio, who was a person with tremendous reserves of empathy and who had a great ability to connect with other people, it was very important for us to have a scene where we could see Sergio engaging with the people everyone is saying he’s there to defend or to help. All the extras in that village were from East Timor. Even though we shot in Thailand, we brought them in for that scene. For me, that was the most emotional part of making the film. Because all of them knew who Sergio was (he’s a very important person in their history), and many had even met him personally, and they were eager to share the stories they had about him. That particular woman’s role was very hard to cast, because no one actually speaks that way. But when we saw her, we just knew we had found the one. And what she did in that scene was actually pretty high-level acting: she connected her personal experience with the lines she was asked to say, which is actually very difficult to do. This was the only scene in the entire film that wasn’t rehearsed at all— it was a one-shot scene. We shot her dialog, and then we moved the camera and shot mine. And that was it. And as you can see in the film, I’m just basically playing myself in that scene. I’m just letting her story move me, because what she was saying was so truthful and so profound.
Sergio has a remarkable ability to connect deeply with people he meets in the course of his work, but then seems almost totally incapable of connecting with his own family. Can you discuss how you approached this dual nature of the character?
GB: That was his great struggle. He was so effective politically precisely because he could absorb the experiences he learned from civilians in the field and then apply that to actually making and changing policy. But he almost had a blind spot when it came to his personal life. And since I had spent a lot of time overseas with journalists, I could understand the idea that makes someone think, “well, what I’m doing is so important and so immersive… my personal life will take care of itself.” A lot of people feel that way. And they can become cynical and jaded. And he was never cynical, but he was blind and sort of running away from his personal life. And we were very interested in that from the outset.
WM: It was such a massive contradiction: here was a guy who was literally trying to save the world, but couldn’t organize his personal life. He wasn’t able to be totally present in his own personal life. And this is something I see that happens a lot with people who get to a certain place in their careers. They’re completely dedicated to their profession. Sergio was sort of in that path. It’s sort of contradictory that a man like him, an intellectual, a graduate of the Sorbonne, a man who had the greatest education and training anyone could ever have, who was the biggest problem-solver in the history of the United Nations… had such a chaotic personal life. I would even say he displayed emotionally immature behavior. And that was actually important to show that in how we portrayed him, because when you’re making a film about a historical figure of great renown, one of the struggles is not to portray them as a saint. To not make a hagiography. Luckily for us, he had so many contradictions. And the story itself, the history itself, of the U.N. being in Iraq, and the U.N. being against the invasion, and Sergio being personally against the invasion, but at the same time having to be there… So the film is so full of contradictions that, in terms of filmmaking, I think it was a very well chosen story and character.