Sean Penn went to war and a movie broke out. This is, in fact, the story behind the production of the documentary “The Great Power,” a poignant cinematic portrait of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Directed by Penn and Aaron Kaufman, who directed the 2021 documentary Crusaders: Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses Speak, Super Power bows out on February 17 out of competition, as a special celebration of its Berlinale at the Berlin Film Festival. Season 5 and Vice Studios are behind the film, selling the rights to Season 5 worldwide.
“Great Power” was not conceived of as a war story. Instead, Penn and Kaufman, as well as producer Billy Smith, sought to chart the course of Zelensky’s unusual career — from comedian and producer playing history teacher elected as Ukraine’s president in the satirical TV series “Servant of the People,” to rising political star his election as the real president of Ukraine in 2019. It was intended to tell a story about every man who — in the case of Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jew born under Soviet rule in the late 1970s — finds himself at the helm of a fledgling democratic nation burning to embrace freedom. A Ukrainian president is elected on the basis of an anti-corruption platform, and very soon after the elections, he finds himself in the crosshairs of an American president.
“When one watches ‘Servant of the People,’ it is evident that he has the luxury of his imagination allowing it [Zelensky] As an actor and as a writer to really say what was really beating in the heart of Ukrainians,” Ben notes. “And that, by the way, would be pretty applicable in many countries, including the United States as you know, kind of ‘Bulworth.'” Imagine Martin Sheen running for President of the United States outside of The West Wing. Well, you’re kind of going, he’s not just an actor – because he means it.
“By the time he decided to run the campaign, people already had an idea of what it could be and had an emotional response to the character he’d created,” Benn continues. With all that youthful energy [Ukrainians] I’ve never seen him drive before.”
Kaufman adds,[This film] It was an opportunity to see what this man is about, to follow a path and find out what the truth is. And that was very refreshing for me. It was intoxicating.”
Plans were made to shoot in Ukraine, but the pandemic hit, and for about two years, Ben and Zelensky communicated via Zoom and the phone. When Kaufman and Benn, who appear on screen throughout the documentary, met Zelensky in person on February 23 last year, Zelensky was dressed, in Pennsylvania, in a “suit, like a head of state in the presidential mansion.”
The next day, February 24, Russian missiles fell on Ukraine, destroying cities and unleashing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. And “Super Power,” which emerged as a character study — a “freak project,” Penn says — is now something entirely different: a film that traces the emotional saga of a war hero.
Penn recalls that fateful historical moment: “Zelinski were two completely different creatures from one day to the next.” “It was a soul in waiting.”
Since declaring its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in August 1991, Ukraine’s struggle for sovereignty has been fought hard, and Putin, who came to power in 1999, has held the office of president or prime minister continuously since that point. In February 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, and tensions between the two countries boiled over, with Putin escalating the conflict without provocation in 2022, vowing to crush the democratic dream of Ukraine’s 44 million citizens.
Zelensky, a political underdog, remained undeterred.
“We always thought about this [film] As a story of David and Goliath in two different ways,” says Kaufman. “He’s the big antagonist and the impetuous little one. But if you look at David and Goliath, David was smart and he was up for it [fight] In a different way, a completely new alternative method that was new and different from the Goliath method. And I feel like Zelensky is the same kind of character.”
Benn adds, “David is millions of Ukrainians. And Goliath is hundreds of thousands of Russians—and, you know, they’re not winning this war.”
For “Superpower,” Penn spent an initial two and a half hours interviewing Zelensky outside the presidential palace, followed by zooms and phone calls that continue to this day. CORE, the disaster relief organization that Ben co-founded with Ann Lee in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, has been on the ground in Ukraine, Poland and Romania since the invasion, providing emergency relief to more than 200,000 individuals, including refugee and Ukrainian families. displaced within their own country.
Regarding his involvement in Ukraine for that matter, Penn says he was very struck by the number of CORE’s “traditionally left-wing donors” who asked an empty question: “How can we help get weapons there?”
Kevin Iwashina, Senior Vice President, Documentary, Season 5, describes Superpower as an organic extension of the human rights struggle that Sean has committed to throughout his career.
“We wanted nothing more than to support Shawn and Aaron as humanitarians who are committed to their art and can apply it to create broadly accessible, meaningful content that influences perspectives and influences thinking,” says Iwashina.
To reinforce the film’s sense of leaky urgency, Superpower features meetings with Ukrainian journalists and high-level experts such as retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, former director for European affairs at the United States National Security Council. Vindman, whose family immigrated to the United States from Soviet Ukraine in 1979, played a key role in testifying against former US President Donald Trump in Trump’s impeachment hearings in 2019. The film also shines a light on ordinary, ordinary people in Ukraine, transformed men and women Overnight – with little or no training – into combat soldiers.
“Across the country, more people were asking to carry guns than there were people having guns to offer,” says Kaufman.
Benn notes, “These Ukrainians were fighting with everything they had — and they shocked the world.”
“Superpower,” insofar as it follows Zelensky’s evolution from comedian to world leader, is an unmistakable appeal to governments around the world. With democracy at stake, this crisis cannot be contained within Ukraine. This is a crisis that, if not dealt with, extends far beyond any country’s borders – and will affect generations and countries to come.
To wit, Andrei Pyshny, Ukrainian banker and politician, makes this stark statement in the film: “I think World War III has already begun. And the front line is in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is just the beginning for the Russian Federation if it doesn’t stop.”
Ben’s fiery pain was too acute to help Ukrainians and share their stories, and whatever danger he may or may not have faced in the midst of the Russian invasion—from destroyed buildings in Mariupol, Kiev, and Severodontsk—fell second to that. wishes.
“I was never very good at math, but I knew statistically we had a very safe bet to get out of there,” Ben says. “Of course, when I put myself in shallow places or with superficial people, you have to have a moment to address the possibility of needing that obituary, And what that means for your children, etc. But something new is prompting you. And in this case, from the moment the invasion began, I was deeply absorbed in that feeling [about] This unifying culture, that people with a lot of different opinions about a lot of different things were able to get along perfectly – that’s everywhere in Ukraine today. Which is very refreshing. So, you are driven by that.
“Once the invasion started, more than any other feeling of emotion, it was a kind of heartbreak,” Ben continues. “I was thinking what world my kids would end up in, you know, to end the day in. It just didn’t seem subtitled.”
The emotional pull of creating a “superpower” was so strong, says Kaufman, that the hardest challenge was determining when it would collapse.
“If Sean and I had our way, we would still be shooting this movie,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll ever stop. I think the hardest part about this movie was creating an arc where we had an ending, where we said, ‘This is the end of the story at that moment. We were really invested. And I think we were invested because we knew it was right, but also because we dug into An ideal that felt real. Once you took it out of the context of the United States and you no longer dealt with left and right — that whole paradigm — and you were looking at someone else’s culture. And you know, [Ukrainians] not perfect. There are a lot of things you could have said about pre-invasion Ukraine that would have died. However, we felt they all wanted to do better. They seem to have this kind of common reason to be better. And I think that was magical for us.”
As for Ben, who famously gifted one of his two Oscars to Zelensky as a symbolic gesture of solidarity — “I would have given them both, but I don’t like traveling with checked baggage, and then my suitcase was too heavy and [and] I think he ended up with Mystic River, he says—his relationship to Zelensky is much deeper than that of the director and his subject.
Their friendship was born out of unusual circumstances.
“I can’t speak for him,” says Ben, “but certainly on my part, I would say that with not enough time to make an emotional decision, I think I came out of the second meeting—that day of the invasion—feeling in love with the guy.”
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