Sean Penn’s ‘Superpower’: The ‘idiot’s guide’ to Ukraine

Lee Heidhues 2.20.2023

While the Russian aggression continues against Ukraine, the Berlin Film Festival carries on.

One of the political hi-lites of the 2023 Festival is the premier of Sean Penn’s documentary ‘Superpower’.

As the following DW piece indicates this documentary about Volodymyr Zelenskyy was planned before Putin invaded Ukraine a year ago.

The onset of the Russian aggression and Zelenskyy’s leadership makes the film all the more powerful and poignant.

Excerpted from Deutsche Welle 2.18.2023

The actor-director’s highly anticipated documentary about Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians’ fight for democracy has premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Three months before the invasion, Sean Penn and his film production team were already in Ukraine, preparing a documentary that would profile Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s atypical career trajectory from actor-comedian-producer to president.

Sean Penn director of the documentary ‘Superpower’ at the Berlin Film Festival

But that story took an unexpected turn when Russia invaded Ukraine, leading the still relatively inexperienced politician to become a wartime leader. 

The ensuing documentary, “Superpower,” co-directed by Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufmann, premiered on Friday at the Berlinale.

The premiere came a day after Penn’s appearance on stage at the film festival’s opening ceremony, where he introduced a live video address by the Ukrainian president.

“Superpower” offers a good introduction to how the comedic superstar, as a Russian-speaking Jew, did not fit into Putin’s propaganda narrative that Ukraine is filled with neo-Nazis who want to deprive the ethnic Russian population of their rights. That didn’t stop the Kremlin from branding Zelenskyy as a Nazi, though.

The film also shows how the Ukrainians’ own perception of Zelenskyy evolved within a few months.

In interviews shot in December 2021, different people admit that they didn’t vote for him, skeptical of his ties to oligarchs as a powerful TV producer, all while accepting that he was still “the lesser of all evils.” A Crimea veteran says the president unfortunately “probably doesn’t have the balls” to face Putin.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy makes an appearance via video at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival

But Zelenskyy did become the unifying leader of Ukraine, notably by staying in his country to defend it instead of fleeing, famously declining US President Joe Biden’s offer to help him leave by stating, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

A year into the conflict, Russia’s continued attacks and the growing number of casualties make it hard to conclusively define the leader’s legacy: “Zelenskyy went beyond expectations, but Russia is not going anywhere,” as one expert interviewed in the film puts it.

But Sean Penn definitely found a figure of hope in Zelenskyy, one he believes should inspire Americans to remember “that their hardwired sense of freedom shouldn’t be taken for granted.”