It started with an idea for a film about a funny bird: Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian and actor who somehow got elected President of Ukraine. “This is going to be fun,” said producer Billy Smith as he pitched the idea to his friend Sean Penn. Then things turned out differently.

In the end, Penn, US director and actor, sits under a tree with Zelenskyj in Kiev in the summer of 2022 and ponders the war.

Like a real-time report

“Superpower” is the name of Penn’s documentary, which had its world premiere at the Berlinale on Friday evening. It has become a portrait of Zelenskyj as the world knows him now. A 45-year-old man in a military green T-shirt who appears to have aged ten years in the space of a year. A man who seems to be there around the clock with appeals and requests for weapons and ammunition.

But the film is also like a real-time report of the days exactly a year ago, when everyone was guessing about Russia’s plans and many believed what happened next was never possible. The film owes its relevance to an insane coincidence that Penn was in Kiev on the day of the Russian invasion, or as he puts it, “at the center of the universe.”

Interview with Zelenskyi on February 24, 2022

The director had been filming in Ukraine with his partner Aaron Kaufman for months before. He had spoken to activists of the so-called Euromaidan, the winter 2013/2014 revolution that led to the flight of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and a break with Moscow. Had informed himself about the war in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014 and the annexation of Crimea.

Selenskyj had promised the crew an interview for February 24, 2022 of all days. Penn didn’t want to let that go, although the deployment of Russian troops at the borders was becoming more and more threatening. Neither of them knew that the attack would start that day. Crazy enough, the interview actually took place. “It’s great that you’re here,” says Selenskyj. He seems tense, but focused and devoted. Then he hurries away again.

Penn compares this meeting to meeting his children for the first time after they are born. “A highlight where you could feel a big human heart with courage was that day with this man,” Penn said the morning after the premiere.

Penn: It’s about the better us

The 62-year-old doesn’t skimp on big words anyway. He calls the Ukraine “a country that stands for the dreams and desires (…) that we all share, that all the films are about: the better we.” the country stands for new beginnings like the Beatles once did: “For the world at the moment, Ukraine is like the Beatles. We should play this record until they win and eat borscht again.”

Don’t expect too much in-depth information about the conflict from Penn’s film. The creators openly admit that they were initially clean. “I don’t think any of us really understood what Ukraine was,” said co-director Kaufman in Berlin.

Then the directors, by their own admission, fell in love with the country and the people. And now celebrate it as an ideal for what America might want to be: “After the last four or five years of American politics, we had lost touch with something that they had,” Kaufman said. “They have different views, different ways of life, but they all want to get better and they seemed very united.” That is perhaps the core of the film, this waking up of the two US directors. Above all, they want to impart “basic knowledge” in the USA in order to solicit support.

Sean Penn in the trenches

In the film, Penn keeps talking about how much the freedom of the entire West is being defended here. Penn is generally very present in his own work – he conducts the interviews, he comments. He can be seen traveling towards Poland in a minivan on the second day of the war. And how he returns to Kiev and to the front in the summer. Sean Penn in the trenches, that’s also shown. A director who smokes a lot of cigarettes and always has a drink nearby, who is visibly shaken and battered by this war.

He made “a one-sided film without any apology,” the director said. He has no interest in talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Penn calls him a “war criminal.” Isn’t that also propaganda? Penn was asked. But the director seems at peace with himself. It shows “the truth about Ukraine’s absolute unity to strive for all the things without which life would be meaningless,” Penn said. “And I’m very happy to be seen as a propagandist.”