Sean Penn’s ‘Superpower’ brings Zelenskyy’s fight to the big screen

BERLIN – Sean Penn brought his star power this weekend to Berlin’s 73rd International Film Festival with one singular purpose: To put a spotlight on President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the Ukrainian war with Russia heads into his second year.

On Thursday, the Berlinale’s opening night, Penn made an appearance with Zelenskyy who spoke via a remote hook-up. Friday was the documentary’s world premiere, with Saturday a press conference with co-director Aaron Kaufman and a trio of producers.

“Superpower” begins on the day last February that Russian President Vladimir Putin began his invasion of Ukraine with a full-scale assault of missiles and ground incursions. But it began years earlier as a completely different kind of film, a profile of Zelenskyy and the unusual circumstances that brought him onto the world’s stage.

He was a popular actor/comedian as well as producer who became famous playing a history teacher elected as Ukraine president in the satirical TV series “Servant of the People.”  Then in 2019, with Russia having years earlier already invaded and annexed the Crimea section of Ukraine, the anti-Putin Zelenskyy was elected president in a landslide.

As Penn has pointed out, it was perfect timing.

Unlike his Putin puppet predecessor Petro Poroshenko, Zelenskyy immediately butted heads with the Russian dictator, leading a pro-democracy movement that grew from a grass roots campaign.

At the press conference Penn, in a Hawaiian hat, ignored questions that were not politically focused. Asked when activism became more important than acting, “As we’ve heard so many times in Ukraine,” he said, “art does have a significant role to play in building freedom and executing freedom. My life experience with this is I don’t really differentiate between those parts in which I stand with people fighting for freedom.”

He emphasized, “This is not unambiguous film.” And there is no room, much less a reason to give Putin a moment. “We would rather be talking to a wall.”

Kaufman noted that, “This movie was never meant to be the definitive movie about Ukraine, about war or Russia. It was our experience not having been educated about Ukraine and what were the things that led up to this. Our movie became our journey finding those truths.”

Added Penn, “In a sense we’re humbly offering people a piggyback ride on the journey we took.”

“Superpower,” having first been screened for Zelenskyy prior to its Berlin showing, is now arranging for American distribution.

Director Sean Penn and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk during the making of “Superpower.” (Photo courtesy Berlin International Film Festival)

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