Sergio Part II – the Biopic

The movie, Sergio, premiered at Sundance in 2020 and is now streamed on Netflix. The biopic could have been about the tension between Paul Bremer (played by Bradley Whitford) and Sérgio Vieira de Mello (Wagner Maura, another Brazilian). Instead, Paul Bremer III was shifted in the film to a caricatured and peripheral role. The film could even have been about the revelation of the harmony as well as tension between Gil Loescher, played by Brian F. O’Byrne, who had just arrived to meet de Mello before the blast took place. Instead, other than being very tall, the personality of Gil in the film had little in common with the soft, caring and scholarly sensibility of the real Gil. Instead, the Gil in the film was a composite of several members of de Mello’s team – of which, Loescher was not even a part. The film could have been about de Mello’s deep concern for Loescher’s well being, in spite of his own precarious state. There was some allusion to this, but it was slighted and marginalized.

In the film, Sérgio was played by Wagner Moura; he had portrayed Pablo Escobar, a very different personality in the Narco series. Moura was superb in this very different role, always dressed as a dapper diplomat who even put the French diplomats, renowned for their attire, to shame. De Mello was appropriately played as a combination bleeding heart and tough and blunt talking realist. The latter quality made him stand out among the world of international diplomacy. For de Mello substituted charm and a broad smile for the equivocation and amorphous speech that often characterizes all diplomacy.

The film highlights some of his accomplishments. No spotlight is concentrated on any one of them to reveal why he had been so successful in each case. In fact, his work in Bangladesh, Sudan and Cyprus for refugees was ignored. The story focuses on much of what he did through flashbacks as he lay trapped under the cement, but not how he did it; just that he did it. For the film is ultimately a romance between he and Carolina Larriera, played beautifully by Ana de Armas.  We get to see how they met, fell in love and the promise of their life together that was aborted. The history of his reputation as a womanizer of the highest order was ignored in the process.

Carolina was an Argentine economist who worked in establishing microfinancing, especially for women in conflict zones. The two met when Sérgio served as the United Nations Transitional Administrator in East Timor during the period 1999 to May 2002. This is well portrayed in the movie. Sérgio induced Carolina to work with him when he was posted to Iraq and many of the scenes focus on her desperate attempt to get help and rescue him from the blown-up Canal Hotel. Left out is the pain she herself suffered in being cancelled from the list of those who were saved and excluded from the ceremonies in which he was honoured in favour of his wife, Annie Personnaz, a Cuban French assistant at UNHCR in Geneva from whom he was not officially divorced even as his civil union the Carolina had been widely acknowledged. But his pension and estate went to his estranged wife. That part of the story might have distracted from the romantic version of de Mello.

I knew virtually nothing of his relationship to Carolina or the latter’s posthumous collaborations in Brazil to honour Sérgio, another item missing in the film. What I, and most others who came in contact with de Mello, knew was de Mello’s attraction to women. He did not seduce women. He did not need to. He loved them plain and simple, some more than others. But he was a lover rather than seducer of women. That element of Sérgio’s personality was also left out of the narrative portrait by Greg Barker, not only in this film but in the 2009 documentary of the same name by the same director consisting of interviews with de Mello as well as original archival footage. The script for the 2020 biopic was actually written by Craig Barton who had penned the dialogue for Dallas Buyers Club. He did as excellent a job as he had in the that previous film, but supported by using archival footage to replicate the original dialogue, narratives and quotations, often using Samantha Power’s biography, Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World.  But the script’s strength is not in the portrayal of conflicts over power and policy, but in grasping de Mello on an intimate plane.

I recall Sergio telling a group of us enjoying late night wine after a day of meetings in Chicago about the nature of international diplomacy and the need to sacrifice one’s family life for the sake of humanitarianism. I even recall him telling us in a very blunt but self-deprecating way about his failure to recognize his youngest son, Adrien’s, allergy to shrimp, an incident actually portrayed in the film. Travelling on the international diplomatic circuit means long periods of time away from your family. It should be no surprise that the children of diplomats in such roles grow up alienated to some degree from their father (or mother, as the case may be). However, in that conversation, one could not fail to notice the depth of love Sérgio de Mello held for his two sons. This is captured well in the film. One would not know from this self-deprecating story that when he worked in Geneva, he left work everyday promptly at 5:00 to meet his son after school.

Thus, the biopic is not only a love story about he and Carolina, but about he and his children and about he and the people he worked with and for, and about his love of life. But most of all, it is a story of his love for his work and his absolute dedication to the UN and internationalism. It is not, however, a film about his thought processes. From watching the film, you would never learn about the contents of his 1974 PhD thesis, The Role of Philosophy in Contemporary Society or of his “second” 1985 doctoral thesis, Civitas Maxima: Origins, Foundations and Philosophical and Political Significance of the Supranationality Concept.

In the first thesis, he set out to demonstrate that philosophy was not detached from human affairs lacking any human touch, but was a foundation for empathy and compassion, a position drawn from his studies of Henri Bergson and the “romanticism” of Schelling. In the second thesis, he tried to provide philosophical depth to the internationalism of the UN and men like Dag Hammarskjőld, an international diplomat who had become Secretary-General of the UN and was also killed in office when his plane was shot out of the Congo skies. Sérgio tried to provide both intellectual depth and witness to the three supranational virtues that Dag had defended – “independence, integrity and impartiality.” Sérgio both in the film and in real life, was the epitome of all three.

What does not really emerge in the film is de Mello’s arrogance and self-confidence that lay behind his charm and smile. Everyone knew that de Mello was destined to succeed Kofi Annan as Secretary-General of the UN, particularly since Sérgio never disguised his vaulting ambitions. But Sérgio was not personally ambitious. He did not want the role because of its title and prestige, but because of what he believed he could do with it. De Mello was deeply convinced that, in the face of the world-wide conflict, repression and impoverishment, only the UN and its associated international agencies could offer the humanitarianism needed. One wonders what he would say about the failures of WHO in the face of the covid-i9 plague.

But it is not just the cosmopolitanism of the UN that he celebrated. For the UN was also the forum where national interests clashed, but also where they were united to pool resources, identify common interests and serve the higher purposes of peace and security among nations. De Mello was as much an inter-nationalist as a cosmopolitan.

When he was Director of the Asia Bureau and refugees were still flowing out of Indochina almost ten years after the plight of the Boat People became a uniting force for people across the world, it was de Mello that led the negotiations between Vietnam, the UNHCR, first asylum countries and resettlement countries concerning the repatriation. There had been a recent upsurge in the outflow of refugees from Vietnam. Among ordinary people as well as international officials, a new vision that played down resettlement and emphasized repatriation had asserted itself. “Voluntary” repatriation was seen to warrant the highest priority as “the natural solution to the refugee problem” in the words of UNHCR High Commissioner Jean-Pierre Hocké (1986), the forty-seven-year-old Swiss national who had been nominated by UN secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar to become the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Hocké took office with very high expectations for he had come from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and wide field experience in Lebanon, Jordan and Vietnam.

Hocké initially seemed prescient. For the long decline in the refugee exodus from Indochina reversed itself in 1986 as the population of the refugees in camps in Asia began once again to increase. With the declining willingness of Western countries to continue their resettlement process and regional solutions in countries of first asylum off limits, repatriation emerged as the only alternative to tackling the problem.

After over a year of shuttling between various capitals around the world, in 1988, based on the commitment of the Vietnamese government to improve its relations with the West, Sérgio de Mello negotiated the 16 June 1988 Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) that reaffirmed the resistance of local countries of first asylum to settlement and reversed the 1979 pledge of Western countries to resettle the Indochinese refugees. (900,000 had been resettled to that point, about 22% to Canada.) After all, the U.S. had openly embraced compassion fatigue and no longer considered the Vietnamese fleeing to automatically qualify as refugees. With the agreement of the Vietnamese to no longer send returnees to re-education camps, the Vietnamese government agreed to an “orderly” – a euphemism for compulsory – return of the “refugees” or economic migrants, except for those who could prove a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

Arthur Helton, an American refugee colleague, denounced the agreement as one aimed at stopping the refugee outflow. Yet, later, he would join de Mello in Iraq and die alongside him in the rubble of the Canal Hotel. This was simply another indication of the success of de Mello’s charm offensives as well as his prescience and realism in accepting the fact that Vietnamese refugees could now return in safety without being persecuted. By 1992, the outflow of refugees from Vietnam had dropped from 70,000 in 1989 to 41 in 1992. At the same time, the UNHCR, now under the leadership of Sadako Ogata, repatriated 360,000 Cambodian “refugees” from camps in first countries of asylum in accordance with the Paris Peace Accords that had been signed under international political pressure on the various Cambodian political factions.

But that charm did not always work. Sérgio tried to win back the favour of Hocké after the latter had been forced to resign as a result of a revolt of employees (of which de Mello was not a part) and their leak of documents showing that, just when the UNHCR was slipping into deficits and the U.S. was cutting back contributions, Hocké was upping his flights from business to first class and writing off other personal expenses on the UNHCR’s purse. When Hocké packed up his belongings, de Mello never came by to say goodbye. Hocké never forgave a perceived disloyalty and betrayal. However, these interpersonal squabbles and moments of bitterness, particularly in the relationship of Paul Bremer and Sérgio de Mello, are not part of the film. After all, de Mello is presented as a universal success story in spite of his own self-criticisms of his own limitations and failures.

Further, given the new and increasing antipathy of the U.S. to the UN and other international agencies, it is a marvel that de Mello managed to keep such good relations with the Americans, especially Paul Bremer. After all, when UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar sought to appoint Dayal, his chief of staff, to become the UNHCR High Commissioner, John Bolton, President Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for international organizations and, subsequently George W. Bush’s controversial ambassador to the UN, opposed the appointment, preferring a political appointee from a rich country rather than a career civil servant with a great deal of field experience. Dayal, a fifty-five-year-old Oxford-educated Indian national, had worked at UNHCR from 1965 to 1972 and understood that the agency was struggling. He was eager to see it bailed out. In response to Bolton’s undermining his appointment, Dayal was livid and resigned from the UN. Perhaps that also would have been the fate of de Mello if he had been, as expected, nominated to be UN Secretary-General.

We will never know definitively what we lost or whether that loss was inevitable in any case.

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