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Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufman's documentary about Volodymyr Zelenskyy is so ridiculously grovelling that it's barely watchable - from the 73th Berlin International Film Festival


Young, pure, funny, full of love, courage and intelligence. Extraordinary. These are just some of the adjectives bestowed on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in this extremely shoddy documentary lasting almost two hours. The rise of the common-man-turned-comedian-turned-president is guaranteed to please Americans across the political spectrum. The 44-year-old head of state has the looks and charisma of JFK, and the acting skills of Ronald Reagan. He is the perfect president because he knows how to behave in front of the camera. He even played a president character on television long before he pursued a political career. Wow. Maybe Anthony Head of Little Britain should become the next prime minister of the UK.

This documentary was conceived years before the Ukrainian War started. Sean Penn visits the Eastern European countries several months before the invasion, and he’s in Kyiv just days before the invasion begins, consistently doubting that Putin will attack. He flees the country via Poland just a few days after the first missiles hit the capital. He returns a few months later, visiting a few buildings shelled by Putin’s war machine. He briefly interviews Zelenskyy twice, and he talks to him on video at least once. He is shaking and almost breaking down in tears every time he talks about the Ukrainian president. I have rarely seen such sycophancy bestowed upon a politician. It’s almost as if Penn was meeting Jesus Christ.

Another big problem with Superpower is that it barely provides any geopolitical and historical context to the complex developments that led to the War. It briefly mentions the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, when Russia, the US and the UK committed to not using military force against Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. But that’s about it. It entirely brushes over the Minsk agreements. It never investigates the ethnic tensions that have long existed in Ukraine. It simply states that the country is more united than ever against the enemy. The language employed (“the democratic dream is under attack”, “freedom-fighters”, and so on) might ring bells (and induce vomiting) with anyone vaguely familiar with the language that the US uses while wrecking democracies across the globe.

On a scale of “1” to “10” on political bias (the scale has no “0” because there is no integral impartiality does not exist), Superpower scores a “10”. A film as blatantly propagandistic and Putin’s media machine. At one point, it is claimed that it is the world’s duty to stop Putin because a successful invasion of Ukraine could set a horrible precedent. Which is fair enough. But the examples are a little disingenuous: “as a consequence, China and Iran could make territorial grabs”. This is just a tad hypocritical. It is not Persia that has a dangerous history of imperialism: just a few decades ago it was the US that toppled the democratically-elected regime of Iran. I applaud that two filmmakers should denounce the horrific consequences of Putin’s shocking and undefensable War. But the fact that these two filmmakers are American and that they disregard the destructive role and even the mere existence of American imperialism entirely discredits their film.

Superpower is intended as an antiwar movie, but the extreme romanticisation of Zelenskyy (and the weapons for which he implores the West) makes it instead a pro-gun apologia. This fits in extremely well with the individualistic notion disseminated by Hollywood that a man and his pistol can change the world for the better. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fox News and far-right presenters welcomed the “brave” documentarist Sean Penn with open arms on their television shows (this is shown in the documentary). The director proudly boasts his achievement, under the illusion that he won the hearts of some of the most callous and cold of Americans. The support of Zelenskyy on the American right has little to do with compassion and solidarity, but instead with pro-gun rhetoric and anti-Russian sentiment.

Sean Penn is not a rabid American imperialist. The actor-turned-documentarist visited Iraq in 2002 and denounced the WMP lies before the American invasion. He faced fierce criticism upon returning home, being denounced for promoting Saddam propaganda and not being patriotic. Co-director Kaufman (who remains behind the camera most of the time) too has politically inflammatory and far more audacious films, including Crusaders: Ex Jehovah’s Witnesses Speak Out (2021), a staunch denunciation of religious fundamentalism in the US. It is a pity that the two filmmakers lapsed into such indoctrination. Perhaps out of naiveness. Perhaps out of shortsightedness. Or a combination of both. Superpower is a literal misfire.

Superpower has just premiered at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival. It is guaranteed to hit cinemas in the US and the UK.

By Victor Fraga - 18-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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