Vol 2, Issue 3 March, 2020

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Three questions with...
2018 Fellow Greg Barker

Your new feature film Sergio debuted at Sundance last month and will be released by Netflix in April. Can you share the origins of that project?

It began over drinks with Samantha Power at a bar near Harvard, back in 2005 or so. She was deep into her research on a book about Sergio Vieira de Mello, the storied UN diplomat. Samantha walked me through the details of Sergio’s tumultuous personal life and specifically the dramatic events of his final assignment—to Iraq, in the chaotic aftermath of the US invasion.

I was riveted, and honestly the idea for a movie just popped into my head. In Sergio’s story, I saw a film centered around life’s most proud questions: How should I love? How do I give my life meaning? Sergio was a man who cared deeply about the world, yet struggled to understand those who loved him most.

It took a while for the stars to align, which often happens with movies, but then a few years ago I found out that Wagner Moura, who just wrapped as Pablo Escobar in Narcos, was interested in playing Sergio, a fellow Brazilian. We then cast Ana de Armas, now rising star in Hollywood (and on the cover of the new Vanity Fair!), as Sergio’s partner, Carolina Larriera, and took the pitch to Netflix. Before long, I was off filming in Jordan, Thailand, and Brazil, a lesson that big projects can take forever to come to fruition, until they suddenly just happen!

The documentary film Sergio was released a decade ago, and documentary filmmaking has dominated your filmmaking career. How is making documentary film different from narrative film?

I was surprised to find that the two forms are not so different—storytelling is storytelling, and audiences respond to emotional authenticity, regardless of whether they are watching real people in a documentary or actors in a narrative. As a director, it’s all about creating the space for authenticity to come through in a performance, whether that “performance” is a verite scene in a documentary or a big set piece with 300 extras. In both instances, the key is all in the preparation, so that when the cameras roll the cast and crew know what they are doing, and are then free to express themselves naturally.

As for Sergio’s story, I really always saw it as a narrative. A decade ago, I was making PBS documentaries, and frankly no one one was going to give me millions of dollars to make a movie. So I told the story as a documentary first, and it’s a film I am very proud of—in fact, the documentary Sergio is now available worldwide on Netflix, as a companion to the new movie.

You have mentioned that you are drawn to stories that explore the nature of war and its moral consequences. How does documentary film—as opposed to other forms of art and journalism—offer a unique perspective to understanding this subject?

Film is simply the art form that suits me best as a storyteller, so I naturally see events as they might play out in three or more acts. Other artists have different tools and talents at their disposal, so it’s really a matter of personal choice. For me, I look at stories where people are tested, morally, physically, emotionally, in ways they perhaps never expected to encounter. And in that test of themselves, it seems to me that deeper truths about the human condition often emerge in dramatic and compelling ways.

Two Cents

Fellows share their networking advice.

1: Remember that most of the people you really want to meet are passionate, obsessive dorks like yourself, and that the passion is what will make you get along. — Molly Crabapple, Class of 2020

2: Be genuine. Only connections built on sincerity, rather than bullshitting, lead to the lasting relationships that help you truly succeed. — Lisa M. Hamilton, Class of 2019

3: Especially if you are introverted or anxious, try to partner with a networking ‘wingman’ or buddy to work the room at conferences and such. Make a plan together ahead of time for whom you’d like to meet, what you'd like to accomplish, etc. — Julia Ott, Class of 2020

4: In my opinion it's far better to build deep collaborations and true friendships than talk to everyone at every professional event. — Sarah J. Jackson, Class of 2019

Two Cents

Patrick Radden Keefe was interviewed on Late Night with Seth Meyers about his book Say Nothing.

Mara Hvistendahl's new book The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, and the Star Tribune. She also wrote an article for the Intercept about the FBI’s China obsession, was profiled in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, and interviewed about her book on CBS News and the Spycast, the International Spy Museum's podcast.

David Rohde's upcoming book In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth About America's Deep State, was named one of "The Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2020" by Publishers Weekly.

Marcia Chatelain's book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America was reviewed in Shelf Awareness for Readers. She was also interviewed about her book on the Gastropod podcast, NPR's Code Switch, and for articles in Slate and Dissent.

Joshua Yaffa's new book Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia was reviewed in the Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, and the Economist. He was also interviewed on PRI's The World and the Longform podcast about his book.

Nikole Hannah-Jones was interviewed about The 1619 Project on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. She was also nominated for three National Magazine Awards in Podcasting for episodes of The 1619 Project’s podcast, 1619. The 1619 Project was also nominated in the Public Interest category.

David Wallace-Wells was interviewed on HPR's Planet808 about his book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.

Josh Chin was interviewed on Slate's podcast What Next: TBD about the strain on China's censorship and surveillance network as the coronavirus spreads.

Nikole Hannah-JonesReginald Dwayne Betts, Trymaine Lee, and Clint Smith are among the New York Times' The 1619 Project contributors who received a George Polk Special Award.

Reginald Dwayne Betts's book Felon: Poems was nominated for an LA Times Book Prize in Poetry and an NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry category.

Two Cents
Go To This

The top 3 New America events we recommend you check out. Now.



Slay the Dragon

Join us in New York City for a special preview screening of Slay the Dragon and a conversation that looks at redistricting, voting rights, and elections. Learn more


The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West

Join the International Secuirty Program in welcoming David Kilcullen for a discussion on his new book, The Dragons and the Snakes. Learn more


The Future of Land at USAID

Please join the Future of Property Rights Program and USAID for a discussion on why land and resource governance matters. Learn more

Reading this month
[Three Uses of the Knife]

In succinct and eloquent prose, Mamet breaks down exactly what makes a narrative dramatic. 
Mara Hvistendahl, Class of 2017

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This book is just a masterclass on using reporting to create a portrait of an event that has already happened, but to do so in a way that makes the reader feel as if they were present in that moment. 
Clint Smith, Class of 2020

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It's replaced Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power as my all-time favorite book, I think. 
Julia Ott, Class of 2020

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Free Swag

Fill out this tiny form for a chance to win a copy of The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl, Class of 2017!

(Please submit by COB Monday, March 9th to be considered.)

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