Can Sean Penn prove his worth as a humanitarian hero? | Documentary films

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There are two Sean Penns, and we each decide which one is real based on our own political leanings and general cynicism. There’s the attention-grabbing Penn, a cheeky hypocrite who uses his fame to affect the appearance of a selfless benefactor while still enjoying a life of fabulous luxury in his spare time. And there’s activist Penn, a workaholic who struggles to part ways with A-listers simply posing as Mother Teresas in training, who talks about a great game to change the world but will hesitate. not to put his money where his sometimes foot-shaped mouth is. In the new Citizen Penn documentary, director Don Hardy isn’t particularly interested in promoting one image of the actor-director over another. He prefers to let the images of devastation and recovery in Haiti do it for him. While Penn may have provided the last name required to kick off a low-budget non-fiction project like this, the man himself isn’t as much the subject as his deeds and legacy. the public aid he created.

“I don’t want to put myself in the position of being Sean Penn’s public relations spokesperson,” Hardy told The Guardian by phone. “There are other people to do that. What I hope comes across in the film is honesty. He admits to some of the tough lessons he’s learned through it all, as we take a little trip through Sean Penn’s story stretching back to the early ’80s. But if viewers can walk away thinking, “Hey. , I still don’t like the guy, but I’m in awe of the work he did ”, that’s enough for me. “

Hardy has navigated a cordial and professional relationship with this polarizing figure for nearly two decades. The couple met through a mutual friend in 2005, and they quickly found common ground on social justice issues; Hardy was working on Witch Hunt, a documentary focused on wrongful convictions, and Penn’s drama Dead Man Walking touched on the same subject. He ended up stepping in to narrate and produce Witch Hunt and, as Hardy says, “It started my film career.” The premiere a few years later gave him some momentum, and he approached Penn again in 2010 for another project, but the star had more pressing business to deal with.

A cataclysmic earthquake struck Haiti, killing thousands and leaving survivors with severely damaged infrastructure. Penn kicked in and Hardy was there to watch. “I saw him hastily preparing a plane to enter Haiti with supplies, I watched him right in front of me,” he said. “He was on the first plane he could catch. I contacted her assistant to ask if Sean needed someone there to film what was going on, and she said yes. A few weeks later, myself and a few friends were out in the field filming footage that could be released to media outlets and show what was going on. “

Hardy walked through a minefield strewn with potential conflicts of interest, focusing on reporting rather than portrayal, prioritizing the how over who. With a combination of her own footage and contributions shot by the affable videographer Captain Barry along with the many volunteers who have circled the camera, we see a little outfit of 30 to nearly 60 balloons. They stretch out towards the camera. As their numbers grew, eventually requisitioning the isolated golf course country as a camp for an estimated 60,000 displaced people. All the while, Penn is busy taking calls and meeting with local liaison officers and being generally in the field, from handing out food rations to accompanying a sick man on a night run for medical care that ends in tragedy.

Although Penn ran the show with the Jenkins-Penn Haiti Relief Organization (now renamed Core), he acknowledged that his authority should have strict limits with Hardy. “I continued to document it over the years, sometimes approaching Sean and asking if we could make a movie about it, and he was always very reluctant,” he says. “I certainly didn’t want it to be a piece of vanity. In 2018, I had another movie coming out and I thought I would have the ability to fundraise for that movie, so I sat down with Sean and he agreed to release it to the world. And he gave me full editorial control to make the film the way I wanted to.

Hardy will concede that Penn made “an intimidating figure” when they sat down together for the seven-hour interview that provides the film with its structural backbone. “He must have smoked three packs of cigarettes, but he allowed himself to be a little more vulnerable than in his other interviews, where he tends to be more careful,” he recalls. From this long and candid session, Hardy provides an insight into the transformative effects service can have on a person, rather than an in-depth investigation into the conundrum that is Sean Penn. As his personal life goes unnoticed, we can see his longtime critical attitude towards the US military evolve into a new esteem as he observes their effectiveness as a humanitarian force.

Say what you want about Sean Penn, but his numbers speak for themselves. Photography: advertising image

“Sean’s organization worked closely with the 82nd Airborne,” says Hardy. “You can see a bit of the friendship that has formed between these groups, but it took time. The soldiers were very suspicious of Sean’s motives when he arrived there. Stay, listen, find a way to work together – as Anderson Cooper says in the movie, in those early days in Haiti, any help was a good help. You have seen a lot of alliances formed between unlikely partners.

“But even in the early 2000s, most of Sean’s criticism was directed at the president and administration who dragged us into the war, as opposed to the people who were fighting it themselves. When they had these meetings, I felt there was a good sense of mutual respect between them.

A willingness to let go of one’s ego and to learn appears to be the key to creating lasting progress in Haiti. Penn was all too aware of the reputation as a “white savior” that Hollywood types can attract when they travel to countries in need, and anticipated it by embracing collaboration and empowering the existing community. . “They didn’t come in with a program on how they were going to provide water or tents,” says Hardy. “Bigger institutions are dabbling in notions of what has worked elsewhere and how they can replicate that in Haiti, but Sean’s organization was willing to listen. “Is that what you need?” All right, we can work together to find a way to provide that. They have worked well with the Haitian people, who are now managing things on the ground from day to day. “

Penn doesn’t seem concerned with the idea of ​​posing as the hero, reinforced in scenes from his annual fundraising gala, in which he breaks his own cardinal rule of never burning the crowd by adopting a tone between l hostile and disconcerting.

The film ends with the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest challenge Core is tackling head on. When the crisis hit Los Angeles, Penn took action and mobilized his resources to speed up testing and ultimately vaccination. Their operations have led to another dust that follows Penn wherever he goes; a handful of anonymous volunteers complained about substandard working conditions, which Penn categorically rejected in a 2,200-word email leaked to the press.

“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Sean about it,” says Hardy, but he’s the same old-same old for a personality with titles still chasing him. The film anticipates this last dusting off and allows its coarser side to coexist with its commitment to give. Say what you want from Sean Penn – really, the documentary invites us, go ahead – but his numbers have a way of speaking for themselves.


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