Sean Pean says the cost in human lives of Russia’s continuing war on Ukraine is on “all of us.”
Political dithering in the West has given Russia great advantages in the conflict, Penn argued, speaking to the audience Friday in Torun, Poland, after screening “Superpower,” his documentary on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Camerimage cinematography film fest.
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If Ukraine had been supplied with enough military support to control its airspace early on, Penn argues, the war that began with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion last year could have been ended by now. Instead, he said, the measured U.S. response was “shameful.”
When asked by one audience member whether Penn had tried to speak to Vladimir Putin while shooting the film, Penn said he had – though he confessed it personally revolted him to meet with the Russian president’s top people, who declined an interview, preferring to gossip about infighting and sexual rivalries in the Kremlin.
“Would I have wanted to talk to him?” Penn asked. “No. I’m not interested in his answers – I know who he is now. He murdered your babies, he murdered my babies – because they’re the same babies that he murdered. And raping. And torturing. And stealing children en masse and reschooling them to hate their parents and their country. And we’re allowing it – we’re allowing it. All of us are not doing enough on this.”
Penn’s documentary, which began as a human interest story on a comedian who somehow ended up as president, changed quickly into a compelling war account as Russian missiles began to fall on Kiev while the crew was filming and interviewing Zelenskyy.
Now, Penn says, he’s committed to sharing the story of the courage and unity of Ukrainians anywhere and everywhere he can.
“I think whenever we make a movie if we don’t think it’s the most important thing in the world, we shouldn’t be doing it,” Penn said. “But the target for me was to make this for, to begin with, the American audience. Because we suffer such division and such breakdown of community, and fair-minded spirit. We belittle each other, it’s nasty and cheap and pedantic and increasingly boring.”
“This is really to try to talk to the many people in my country who care. By ‘care’ I don’t mean some kind of weepy embrace but recognition that it matters. Certain principles matter.”
“I’m determined to get as many eyes and ears on the film as possible – and may it just be a Trojan horse to continue the conversation. Especially when there are other dramatic things happening in the world.”
“But we ought to be able to walk and chew gum and dance and laugh all together and maybe a few other things. And make films.”
“Superpower,” co-directed by Penn and Aaron Kaufman, premiered in February at the Berlinale and covers Ukraine’s struggle for independence dating back to the Orange Revolution in 2005, through the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, through Zelenskyy’s surprise election win in 2019.
Filming started in late 2021, covering several visits to Ukraine, including trips to battle zones and surveying U.S. media and political responses to the escalating war.
The doc was produced by Vice Studios.
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