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Sean Penn's 'Superpower': The 'idiot's guide' to Ukraine

February 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.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, talks with American Oscar winning actor Sean Penn, right, on Constitution Square
Sean Penn met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in NovemberImage: Ukraine Presidency/Planet Pix/ZUMA/picture alliance

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.

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.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on a screen giving a speech at the Berlinale Palast.
Zelenskyy talked via video link during the opening ceremony of the Berlin International Film Festival on February 16Image: Annegret Hilse/REUTERS

Drawing 'Superpower' from the people

Volodymyr Zelenskyy gained fame as an actor, starring in, among other projects, the satirical TV series "Servant of the People." In the sitcom, he portrays a history teacher who is unexpectedly elected Ukraine's president after a video of him making a crude rant against governmental corruption goes viral.

Penn's documentary takes its title from a scene of "Servant of the People": While putting his son to bed, the fictional president explains that his new position is hard work, because there are a lot of people who want to harm the country. "Do you have a superpower?" asks the kid. "Of course," the father replies. "You. And I'll fight the bad guys."

Stil from TV series 'Servant of the People': Two men wearing suits look confused, the one on the right side is Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
A scene from 'Servant of the People,' which starred Volodymyr Zelenskyy Image: Arte/dpa/picture alliance

Similarly, in an inaugural speech in 2019, Zelenskyy quotes his then 6-year-old son. The boy's first reaction following his father's election was to ask, "So I'm the president now too?" The question prompted Zelenskyy to realize that his child was actually right: "Everyone of us is president," he stated in his speech, emphasizing his will to get the people involved in building a more democratic country.

"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.

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."

Sean Penn and Volodymyr Zelenskyy waliing in Kyiv.
Sean Penn and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in November 2022, a meeting that happened after the film shootImage: Ukraine Presidency/ZUMA/picture alliance

A first interview on February 24, 2022

After months of preparation through various interviews with people of all walks of life, as well as with foreign policy experts, journalists, military personnel and politicians such as Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, the film crew finally gets to meet the Ukrainian president himself.

Days before the invasion, many experts were skeptical it would actually happen, and Penn was among those who rejected the possibility.

Then, of all days, their interview in the presidential palace is scheduled on February 24, 2022 — the day Russia invades Ukraine.

Despite the crisis, Zelenskyy still manages to find a short slot for Penn and his team in his secret bunker.

Penn left the interview visibly convinced of Zelenskyy's superpower: "I believe with everything in my heart that this is a man of love, of intelligence and courage," the actor tells a grassroots Russian journalist shortly afterwards. "And I still believe that leading with love is proving itself to be the most powerful weapon on Earth."

"We made a unapologetically biased film, because that is the truth we found," Sean Penn said at a Berlinale press conference on Saturday, following the premiere of his film. The actor is among the most high-profile advocates of providing precision weapons to Ukraine. "We live in an odd time where this is the most significant humanitarian intervention that can be made," he added. 

Sean Penn wearing a baseball cap, right and Aaron Kaufman, blurry in the foreground.
Sean Penn (right) and Aaron Kaufman co-directed 'Superpower'Image: Soeren Stache/dpa/picture alliance

Filling a knowledge gap

Those expecting a behind-the-scenes portrait of the Ukrainian leader in the command center will be disappointed by the documentary.

Apart from two sit-down interviews — the second one held in a garden in June 2022 — and a Zoom call with an exhausted Zelenskyy a month into the war, the film rather follows Sean Penn on his journey to understand Ukraine's recent history and the current developments, including the impact of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that ousted the pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych, and which was followed by Russia's invasion of Crimea.

The Vice production includes many cigarette-and-vodka-filled scenes, with Penn traveling to Ukraine several times for the documentary, and also shows the actor's advocacy work to boost US support for Ukraine's defense efforts.

For anyone who has been following the war over the past year, the film does not provide much new insight into the current events. As director Aaron Kaufman pointed out at the press conference, the production team entered the project with a "very shallow United States view" of Ukraine, and their film essentially aims to get people "to a base level of understanding," or as Penn described it, it's "the idiot's guide" to the conflict.

In a world where disinformation, clickbait distractions and Fox News commentators do not fill this information gap, it is easy to forget that such works remain crucial.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy: From actor to wartime president

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture