Producer/Director Simone Duarte talks about first meeting Sergio Vieira de Mello, going to North Korea to meet the King of Cambodia and traveling to nine countries in two months while filming EN ROUTE TO BAGHDAD.
What led you to make EN ROUTE TO BAGHDAD?
As a journalist and the news bureau chief of TV Globo, I covered the 2003 attack of August 19th (on the UN headquarters in Baghdad) from New York to my network in Brazil. All the wires we got about Sergio Vieira de Mello’s death seemed very cold and distant from the kind of work he did. I had the chance to work in a UN mission in the field in East Timor where he was the UN representative and that experience was a breakthrough in my life. As a Brazilian, I also felt that my people didn’t know much about him, although he became a hero there after his death. On the day of his death I thought that I should tell his story through the eyes of the people who knew him in those remote regions where he worked for so many years. Besides all that, I really believe in a multilateral approach to deal with global affairs and I thought telling his story was also a way of stating that multilateralism can work.
How did you meet Sergio Vieira de Mello?
I met Sergio Vieira de Mello in 1999 at a lunch in his honor in New York shortly after he came from Kosovo, where he was the special representative of the secretary-general. I told him I wanted to do an interview for Brazil because nobody there knew about him or his work, although at that time he was already the most important Brazilian at the United Nations. He agreed, but as he was going to Africa, we decided to do the interview after he came back. And then he was nominated as special representative to East Timor and I was the only one from the media who got an exclusive interview with him. The funny thing is that a week before I did the interview, someone from the UN told me that my name was being considered for a position in East Timor because I knew Portuguese and had television experience. I ended up working for five months for the public information division in Dili and witnessed the first days and months of de Mello’s administration and the birth of the first country of this century.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I vividly remember the interview I did with a survivor of the Baghdad attack, Mona Rishmawi. She said to me that we ought to think about Sergio not only as the special representative of the secretary-general who died in Baghdad, but also through his life, as he had such a full life. For me this film is about his life, the lives he touched and the lives we want for ourselves and for our beloved ones.
I hope EN ROUTE TO BAGHDAD inspires people to do what they are passionate about. I also think it can help people to have a better understanding of the kind of work the United Nations can do and what kind of world we live in.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making EN ROUTE TO BAGHDAD?
Sergio was so popular that everybody says that he was a friend. So, to find out who really was close to him in those countries I wanted to focus the film on (Mozambique, Cambodia, East Timor and Iraq), was really a challenge. I know that we interviewed a lot of people who really knew him and we missed others because of lack of time and money. You have to realize that we went to nine countries in less than two months. We couldn’t go everywhere to interview everybody. But, thanks to the other two producers who work with me, we were able to track down most of them. Also, I was so obsessive about finishing the film for the first anniversary of the attack that I didn’t rationally realize that nobody really does a documentary in less than a year, and without funds. The financial aspect of it was complicated, as I think it is for most filmmakers. Also, when you are at the edit room you feel challenged every day.
What were some interesting events that happened during the making of EN ROUTE TO BAGHDAD?
One of the most interesting things that happened was our trip to North Korea and our meeting there with the King of Cambodia, Sihanouk. We knew Sergio got close to Sihanouk in the ‘90s and that the King liked Sergio very much. But we never thought that he would be in North Korea and would be willing to open the most closed country on earth to us. We were in Cambodia filming when we got the phone call asking us to go there and we had to shorten our trip in Cambodia. Then we had all sort of difficulties to get a flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. We had to stop on those remote roads on the Cambodia/Thailand border with phone calls to North Korea and New York. And our almost four days in Pyongyang were really some of the most incredible and weird experiences of my life. I ended up as the first female Brazilian journalist to enter there! But that is another film…
What has the audience response been so far to the film?
So far, the response of the audiences had been overwhelming. When I was making the film I was very concerned about how to talk about so many different places and realities and reach not only people who knew and follow foreign news, but also ordinary people. What strikes me is that people who don’t know anything about those issues get emotional about the film. They cry, they laugh, they feel inspired. I have people coming to me or sending emails telling that they decided to follow their dreams, or that they learned something new. It is very rewarding also to see that not only Brazilians or Americans, but also people from different nationalities and backgrounds related to the film. For me, that is the best reward.
Do you stay in touch with people from the film?
We interviewed almost 60 people for EN ROUTE TO BAGHDAD. The good thing is that I managed to keep in touch with many of them. When I show the film in the cities they live in, we try to get together. One of the rewards of making this film was also meeting so many wonderful people and having the honor to have them share some important moments of their lives and their beliefs. There was one sad story. In Mozambique, I met a wonderful and passionate young American lady, Amy Sosnowski, she was doing a incredible job in educating Mozambicans to be teachers. Early this year she died from malaria and although I only spent two days of my life with her, you have no idea how much it touched me.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
You have to believe in what you are doing and feel passionate about it, otherwise there is no reason to do it. It is not about money—because documentary making is not going to make you a millionaire or bring you instantaneous fame—because you know that this fame is a kind of “15 seconds” one. So it is really about passion for what you do, the subject you cover, the people you meet on the way.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Because I always thought that there was no better place for this film but PBS. It reaches the whole country, you reach all social levels—so it is the most democratic way to reach audiences wherever they are.
What are your three favorite films?
I can’t just pick three. But among my favorites are La Dolce Vita, The Woman Next Door (La Femme a Coté) and Blue Velvet.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I didn’t pay my bills and I created more debt than I had in all of my life previously!
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
I would spend my day watching all the films I still want to watch! (Can we call that work?)
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent
In the making of EN ROUTE, Asian food became very inspirational…
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Don’t get upset or discouraged when you hear “no” because you are going to hear so many “no”s but perhaps you are going to hear one “yes” and this will make you continue. Believe in what you are doing, otherwise nobody will.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
For me it is very difficult to consider myself a filmmaker. I always thought of myself as a journalist, and now as a journalist who made two documentaries. I can mention a few filmmakers that I really love, but I will be very pretentious if I think they have to do with my two works. I like Fellini, Francois Truffaut and David Lynch—just to mention three completely different directors that I like.
What sparks your creativity?
The passion to make it happen!