Berlin: On 1-Year Anniversary Of Russian Invasion ‘Superpower’ Directors Sean Penn, Aaron Kaufman Talk Ukraine, Pres. Zelenskyy’s Courage And If We’re Already Fighting WW III

EXCLUSIVE: On February 24, 2022 Sean Penn and his documentary filmmaking team got up before dawn in Kyiv in anticipation of a planned interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Suddenly, explosions shattered the quiet and missile fire turned the darkened sky to malevolent orange. Russia’s full-scale attack on its neighbor had begun — what President Vladimir Putin later that day euphemistically dubbed a “special military operation.”

Experts widely predicted Kyiv would fall within days and Zelenskyy would perish or flee his country (he was offered passage out by the Biden administration). Neither happened. On the one-year anniversary of the invasion, Penn and Aaron Kaufman, directors of the documentary Superpower, are reflecting on Ukraine’s response to a war of annihilation and Pres. Zelenskyy’s stunning leadership.

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“Well, obviously, I share the broad view that his is a historic profile in courage,” Penn tells Deadline regarding Zelenskyy, “and I’m always mindful, as he would be, to parallel that with…that he is a leader who has coalesced an entire country of heroes. And he was the glue in ways that normally with presidents fleeing their own country for their own safety, he’s there to lead for freedom.”

“We had a front row seat to see President Zelenskyy embrace the challenge of the Russian invasion,” Kaufman notes. “Zelenskyy has displayed a combination of strategic thinking, effective communication, and decisive action while facing an existential threat.”

Superpower held its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival last week. At a packed Berlinale press conference, Penn revealed he had spent the previous week in Kyiv and had screened the film for Zelenskyy. The documentary makes the urgent point that Russia’s invasion not only imperils one democratic country’s freedom, but jeopardizes democracy everywhere.

“It seems obvious that the stakes are not between Russia and Ukraine,” Kaufman observes. “The very nature of modern democracy is being challenged.”

“If you did a table top of migration flows, food security issues, Russian expansionism, virtually every aspect of this has tentacles into our own future,” Penn comments, noting the historical context going back three decades when then President Clinton, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other leaders signed an agreement in Budapest, Hungary that saw several former Soviet republics surrender their nuclear arms.

“As seen in the film, we had clearly committed in the Budapest memorandum, when we were among the significant who talked Ukraine into giving up what, at the time, was the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world in our efforts towards de-proliferation, the assurances were given by us that, and by the Russians, that no one would invade them,” Penn says. “The Russians, as stated in the film, have violated all of that and now it’s our sacred duty to honor that and to protect the credibility of our diplomacy and nuclear proliferation going forward in other regions.”

Fifth Season and Vice Studios are the production entities behind Superpower, which is an acquisition title. Fifth Season and CAA are handling worldwide sales. Just a couple of days after Superpower’s premiere, President Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv, where he reaffirmed American support for Ukraine’s self-defense.

“Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided,” Biden said as he stood next to Pres. Zelenskyy. “He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now.”

During the visit, Biden announced another $500 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine, a package that will include arms and ammunition. The administration hasn’t agreed to all of Ukraine’s requests for weaponry, however, stopping short of supplying some advanced systems.

“What has been disappointing has been witnessing the hand wringing over what to give Ukraine and when,” Kaufman tells Deadline. “It’s been a year and we have seen Ukraine effectively use every resource we’ve given them. Supporting Ukraine is keeping United States citizens out of a war with Russia.”

The Biden administration must balance supporting the defense of Ukraine with appearing to engage in direct armed conflict with Russia. But in limiting the number and type of weapons it will offer Ukraine, does U.S. policy only serve to guarantee a protracted war? Penn doesn’t foresee it unfolding that way, necessarily.

“I don’t think it favors Russia’s objectives of protraction beyond the short term vindictive obscenity of their violence toward innocent people,” Penn says, “and destruction of so much of the infrastructure of the country, displacement of families and all that comes with this stupid fuckin’ thing, but, in the long term, my sense is that the United States and the other allies…well, just keeping it to the United States, the United States will ultimately do everything necessary, without putting American soldiers on the ground… so my feeling is that all of that devastation won’t be protracted if we just give it to them now and not trickle it in anymore with these fears of the bully of escalations that we can’t control the nature of anyway.”

Late last year, Pres. Biden warned, “Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III… something we must strive to prevent.” But in a piece published last September in The New Yorker, Russia expert Fiona Hill (who gained famed with her testimony in the first impeachment proceedings against Pres. Trump), was characterized as asserting “we are already fighting in the Third World War, whether we acknowledge it or not.” Susan Glasser’s piece quoted Hill as saying, “We’ve been in this for a long time, and we’ve failed to recognize it.”

At least one observer in Superpower also claims we’re in World War III. But Penn and Kaufman don’t go that far.

“I don’t believe we’re involved in World War III,” Penn says, “but we are certainly seeing a flashpoint that if we don’t recognize that the language of Russia is power and bring them to the kind of negotiations that all conflicts end in, and those that recognize the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine, we’re not going to get there until we give them long-range precision weapons and fighter jets.”

Kaufman, meanwhile, says flatly, “We are not in WWIII because Ukraine is doing the fighting and suffering the casualties. There is considerable difference between allied support vs. active engagement.”

Deadline asked the filmmakers about unveiling Superpower at Berlin, in a country that, like the United States, has become vital to Ukraine’s survival.

“Premiering at Berlin allowed us to launch the film on a global stage,” Kaufman notes. “It was important to show the film to those who are closest to the conflict and have the most to lose by not supporting the effort.”

Penn observes, “Berlin is a great festival, and they were enthusiastic about the film. Germany is among the most important countries to Ukraine’s defense. At the very beginning of this war, internationally, it never entered people’s minds that Germany would have recognized its position as responsibly as it has, and I hope it’s encouraged to go even further, given the energy dependencies that it has had with Russia.”

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