SERGIO: From The Work In Field To The Movie Screens
Author: Pedro Henrique Lima do Nascimento
Translated into Spanish by Alberto Pineda
On August 19th, 2003, a suicide terrorist detonated a truck bomb just outside of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, where the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in Iraq was located. To honor the 22 fatal victims, the UN General Assembly (2008, p. 5) decided to designate August 19th as World Humanitarian Day.
To commemorate it, this article will compare the 2020 Netflix movie Sergio with the 2008 biography that inspired it: Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World, written by the former United States (US) Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. Both tell the real-life story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian philosopher and UN diplomat who was the main target of the attack.
After the success of the TV series Breaking Bad and Narcos, Netflix needed a production with Latin American characters represented more positively. No way to get it wrong with the story of Sergio – as he was known even among those who had never met him personally, in a true demonstration of his Brazilian culture. At the time, he was acting both as the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Iraq and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Throughout his career, he also served in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cyprus, Lebanon, Mozambique, Peru, Rwanda, Serbia, Sudan, Timor-Leste, among others.
Inevitably, for the film, contexts will have to simplified and different situations will have to be blend into a single scene. That said, it is surprisingly accurate. Let’s explore what is fact and what is fiction.
Clearly, the main difference between film and reality is the biography of Gil Loescher, the Oxford University researcher, and refugee expert who survived the attack but lost both of his legs in the rescue effort. Together with Arthur Helton, a lawyer based at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York City, he was studying the humanitarian effects of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (Power, 2008, pp. 452-453).
They had flown all the way to Baghdad for a two-week field assessment that started with two separate meetings. The first was with the US-appointed Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Paul Bremer (as cited in Power, 2008, p. 454), who assured them that “there are a few security issues, but we are getting everything under control”. The second meeting was with Sergio at the Canal Hotel, where he and Helton would die as a result of the bombing.
On the other hand, the movie character Gil Loescher is Sergio’s assistant, following him on each of his missions. The character plays the role of reporters, personal assistants, and UN work colleagues Sergio had in his carrier. Those include Marwan Ali (pp. 448; 453) Ahmad Fawzi (pp. 396, 401), Peter Galbraith (pp. 334-336), Fabrizio Hochschild (p. 304), Dennis McNamara (pp. 326-328), Jonathan Prentice (p. 335), Tamarat Samuel (pp. 304-305), William Shawcross (p. 99), Andrew Thomson (pp. 101-106), and other unnamed UN staff (pp. 91; 329).
In the credit scenes, the producers amend this adaptation with a message that reads: “The character of Gil Loescher as portrayed in the film is a composite of Loescher and several members of Sergio’s A-team. Loescher was never in East Timor. He survived the bombing and returned to his family” (Moura, Dreifuss, & Travers, Sergio, 2020). After surviving the attack, Gil Loescher did not let his disability be on the way of continuing his work on refugee issues, including on the field. He passed away on April 28th, 2020 (Lindner, 2020).
While some have criticized the movie for overemphasizing Sergio’s romance with Carolina Larriera (Lee, 2020), I believe their love story ties the Iraqi and Timorese scenes better than any political drama could in the amount of time available. Besides, it also underlines Sergio’s difficulty in reconciling his professional and personal lives, which is a more relatable plot point to the average viewer.
The movie is surprisingly accurate in the depiction of their relationship. From her work with microcredit finances to Timorese businesses to him slipping US President Bill Clinton´s party away to go for a run with her in the night of independence, to the last time they spoke to each other through the rubbles of the Canal Hotel (Power, 2008, pp. 337-338; 343; 479). It is also true that she broke up with him out of frustration from his lack of commitment to their relationship and that they reunited after he demonstrated that commitment by adorning his living room in a romantic way (pp. 338-339).
The focus on their relationship is also relevant for another cause: The recognition of a partnership between the two. As the movie does not shy away from mentioning, Sergio was still married to the mother of his two sons when he started his relationship with Larriera. Annie Vieira de Mello and him had already appeared before a divorce tribunal when he was summoned to work in Iraq. The paperwork was put on pause so that he could go to this important mission (pp. 386-387).
After his death, however, UN officials were afraid there could be an ugly scene if the two women attended his memorial service in Rio de Janeiro. Bureaucratic constraints were put in place to delay Larriera’s arrival to his home city. By the time she arrived in Rio, still in the torn and bloody skirt, she was wearing after the attack, her partner’s casket had already left for Switzerland, where he would be buried at the exclusive Cimitière des Rois (pp. 500-501). After the movie’s release, Larriera (2020) went on Twitter to express how she feels her rights as a family were and still are denied.
Now a round-up segment to sum up other minor differences.
SECURITY IN BAGHDAD. In the film, Sergio requests Sergeant William von Zehle to move his men away from protecting the Canal Hotel. After protests from his bodyguard, he takes full responsibility for the decision and explains himself: The UN mission needed to dissociate itself from the US-led occupation to not be confused as being part of it. As a result, it became a soft target for terrorists. How true is that?
The specifics are fiction, but the situation is based on the real dilemma of what role should the UN play in an occupation which resulted from a war the organization had not legitimized. As the CPA had taken governing functions, including security, it became Iraq’s de facto government (Power, 2008, pp. 402-403). As the government of the host country, it was responsible for the security of foreign missions, including the UN’s (p. 479). However, if the UN staff accepted that security, it could reinforce the perceptions that they were acting as part of the occupation (p. 502).
Because of that, Sergio declined an invitation to move the UN Headquarters to within the Green Zone – the extravagant fortified district where CPA administrators set up their base in Saddam Hussein’s palaces and insulated themselves from the Baghdad reality (pp. 402-404). Instead, he made the Canal Hotel more open and accessible for Iraqis to express their complaints.
Still, Sergio did voice his concerns about how irresponsible it was for agencies to send their staff – like Loescher and Helton – to Iraq (p. 432). On his last briefing before the UN Security Council, he stressed how
“[t]he United Nations presence in Iraq remains vulnerable to any who would seek to target our organization […] Our security continues to rely significantly on the reputation of the United Nations, our ability to demonstrate, meaningfully, that we are in Iraq to assist its people. […] And more recently I’m afraid for internationals” (Vieira de Mello, 2003, as cited in Power, 2008, p. 420).
However, decisions on specifics were beyond his control.
HUMAN RIGHTS DOSSIER. In the movie, just before the bomb takes off, Sergio tells his assistant Gil Loescher that he had decided to make a dossier on the human rights situation in Iraq under the CPA public. Does this scene have any ground in reality?
Yes. Sergio, who was still the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights at this point, had tried to stir CPA behavior on this topic behind the scenes with no success. On that same August 19th, 2003, his political officer Marwan Ali convinced him to publicly condemn the Bremer de facto government after Coalition forces had killed an eight-year-old boy and his mother. The statement – not a full dossier –, that would have been publicized the next day, would be the first-ever UN public condemnation of US human rights violations in Iraq (p. 453).
RESCUE DETAILS. The most gruesome and desperate details of the rescue effort were left out. In the documentary of the same name and from the same director, a visibly disturbed von Zehle (as cited in Barker, Battsek, & Goldman, 2009) recalls how he was forced to use the same tools he had used to amputate Loescher to cut off dead bodies that were blocking the way to lift him up.
The firefighter paramedic Andre Valentine tried to keep the two trapped men awake with prayer. Reportedly, Sergio exclaimed: “Fuck God, just get me out” (Power, 2008, p. 485). This is disputed by Sergio’s friends and family, which see it as uncharacteristic of the very superstitious, albeit atheist, humanitarian. Though it is possible it is true considering the level of life-threatening stress combined to what could be perceived as unacceptable proselytizing.
IENG SARY. In the film, a UN refugee team goes deep into the Cambodian jungle to negotiate repatriation with the Khmer Rouge. There, the violence of the revolutionary group contracts with Ieng Sary, who, like Sergio, was educated in Sorbonne and took part in the March 1965 Paris student protests. Is that true?
Mostly yes. They both studied at the Sorbonne, but at different times and Sary had already left it by 1965. It also seems that the movie combined elements of the meeting with Ny Korn. Instead of Loescher, a New Zealander doctor named Andrew Thomson was part of the team. The woman named only in the credits is Mieke Bos, Sergio’s personal assistant and then-girlfriend (pp. 101-106).
SENHORINHA. In a very emotional moment, Sergio meets an elderly Timorese woman known only as Senhorinha, who has lost all her family and belongings to the war. When asked what she wants for the future, she replies she wants to go up the sky, become a cloud, travel to her hometown, and fall as rain, so that she can stay forever in the place where she belongs. How true is this fantastic story?
Basically, all of it. Her speech is almost a verbatim quote from the book. Except it was originally said by an elderly woman living in a similar situation in a refugee camp in Azerbaijan as a result of the 1996 Nagorno-Karabakh War (pp. 182-183). The actor Wagner Moura and the director Greg Barker have discussed this powerful scene shot by shot (Netflix Film Club, 2020).
GUS DUR. In the film, Sergio has a tense meeting with Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur. In it, Sergio successfully negotiates the independence of Timor-Leste and the official apologies from Indonesian atrocities, an accomplishment he himself had deemed impossible. He does that by reminding himself of Senhorinha’s words.
Details of the negotiations are not known, but the results are true (Tais Timor, 2000). The scene also demonstrates Sergio’s efforts of becoming “more Timorese than the Timorese” (Prentice, 2008, as cited in Power, 2008, p. 335) as a means to gather domestic legitimacy when in international negotiations. This is better documented in the case of Timorese Sea petroleum exploration revenues disputes with Australia (pp. 334-336), though it would make for much less interesting entertainment.
XANANA GUSMÃO. Another tense meeting Sergio has in the movie is his first with Timorese rebel leader General Xanana Gusmão at the Governor’s House. The General calls off Sergio for his cultural insensitivity as he is using a tais – a traditional Timorese scarf that was supposed to be used by “elders and respected leaders only” (Moura, Dreifuss, & Travers, Sergio, 2020). This implies he is not to be respected.
In fact, for their first conference, Sergio went to the rebel headquarters instead of waiting for Gusmão to come to the capital Dili. This and the fact that Sergio spoke Portuguese gave good first impressions, but they were not enough to dissipate the mistrust the Timorese leadership had against the UN (Power, 2008, p. 305). At one point, the general even refereed to the UN presence as a “second occupation” (p. 313). The meeting with the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the fact that Gusmão brought it up on his first encounter with Sergio is also true (p. 305).
That said, the incident in which rebel soldiers refuse passage to what was supposed to be the UN authority in the country did not take place with Sergio in Timor-Leste. Rather it was an infamous incident that happened with the head of the UN mission in Cambodia, Akashi Yasushi, and the commander of the UN peacekeeping force in that country, General John Sanderson (pp. 106-109).
The tais part is entirely fictional, but it sums up very nicely UN’s initial symbolic missteps and the Timorese skepticism towards it (pp. 311-313) while showcasing the importance of this cultural artifact to the Timorese society (Sávio, 2016). It also ties together with one of the final scenes, when Gusmão presents Sergio with a tais, implying he now deserved the respect he was once denied. This also summarizes the level of respect real-life Sergio gathered among the Timorese, to the point that, after his death, his name was added to the list of national martyrs (Power, 2008, p. 495).
It is important to have in mind that books, above all history books, and films have different objectives. The objective of the biography is to recount the true facts about Sergio’s life and, as a result, teach us about UN history, the countries where he served, humanitarian law, world politics, negotiation, and peacebuilding. The objective of the movie is to tell a story with an interesting plot capable of attracting the attention of its general public while sharing a little bit of his life and accomplishments. Was it successful?
The love story captures the attention and makes it more relatable to a wider audience while recounting facts with remarkable accuracy for a biographic film. The main deviation – Loescher – is explained in a note at the end of the movie. But for those that could not have enough and want to learn more about the topics mentioned above, I highly recommend reading Chasing the Flame.
Barker, G., Battsek, J., Goldman, J. (Producers), & Barker, G. (Director). (2009). Sergio [Motion Picture]. United States.
Larriera, C. [. (2020, April 28th). (String :o) Following positive impact that #Netflix premiere of movie #SergioNetflix, wanted to share a little about who #SergioVieiradeMello really was but above all, narrate what really happened after 2003 #Baghdad attack.We had been together over 3 yea. Retrieved August 6th, 2020, from https://twitter.com/harvardchick/status/1255174314762133509
Lee, B. (2020, April 16). Sergio review – fact-based Netflix UN drama opts for old school romance. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/apr/16/sergio-review-fact-based-netflix-un-drama-opts-for-old-school-romance
Lindner, E. (2020, May 15th). Gil Loescher, 75, Refugees Expert Who Survived Iraq Bombing, Dies. The New York Times. Retrieved August 2nd, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/world/middleeast/gil-loescher-dead.html
Moura, W., Dreifuss, D. M., Travers, B. (Producers), & Barker, G. (Director). (2020). Sergio [Motion Picture]. United States.
Netflix Film Club. (2020). Retrieved August 7th, 2020, from The Most Powerful Scene in Sergio Was Mostly Improvised | Shot by Shot | Netflix: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsbDxCE0IaE
Power, S. (2008). Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World. Penguin Books.
Sávio, D. (2016). A Tecelagem de Tais no Timor-Leste e suas Implicações para a Educação Matemática Escolar. Florianópolis.
Tais Timor. (2000, March 13). Indonesian President Visits East Timor. I(3), 1-2. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2C9F57427B5EA16F852568D5007317FB-ETnewslettr3.pdf
United Nations Ethics Office. (2012). Putting Ethics to Work: A Guide for UN Staff. New York City.
United Nations General Assembly [UNGA]. (2008, December 3). Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian. Retrieved August 1st, 2020, from https://undocs.org/A/63/L.49
 This was frowned upon, but not seen as remarkably unusual for the work environment at the time (Power, 2008, pp. 78-80). Nowadays, this situation would be prohibited under UN Ethics Office’s (2012, p. 14) rules.
Pedro Henrique Lima do Nascimento is a Registration Assistant at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Boa Vista Office. This article is based on the views of the author and does not represent that of the UNHCR or the United Nations.