Citizen Penn

No matter your views of Sean Penn, this startling documentary about the destruction and lives lost from the shattering 2010 earthquake in Haiti is sure to change how you see him.

Not that he cares what you might think mind you. He didn’t travel to Haiti to bring attention to himself. No. Like other first-responders on site, he too played an admirable, tireless “hands-on” role in the wider humanitarian effort to save lives, and to bring much-needed medicines, money and peace to a disturbing situation. After spending millions of his own money, he tried to raise more funds by hosting galas with celebrity friends only to become disappointed when many did not come through as he had hoped. And on this score, he has no trouble calling people out and speaking his own mind, a feature of Penn’s character which has, in past, elicited controversy. 

Still, this documentary remains truly eye-opening if not heartbreaking, especially for a nation struggling to restore a more tolerable measure of normalcy in the aftermath.

Penn once compared Port-au-Prince to Detroit, saying, “It’s not more dangerous, it’s not less dangerous.”

To quote from the VIFF catalogue:

Penn, whose father Leo was blacklisted as a Communist, has made no secret of his disgust of American imperialism, and has regularly ventured to places like Iraq, Venezuela, Cuba, and New Orleans post Katrina. But as this film chronicles, over the last decade much of his energy has gone into supporting the people of Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010, which claimed a quarter of a million lives and displaced many more.

Penn arrived with a small team of volunteers and urgent morphine supplies donated by his friend Hugo Chávez. More surprising, perhaps, is that he opted to stay on the island for months, taking over leadership of the largest refugee camp when the US military left. Culled largely from footage shot on the ground at the time, but also drawing on interviews with Penn, Anderson Cooper and others, the film is a vivid account of first person activism, the expediencies of life and death in a disaster zone, and one man’s dedication to direct action.

In the wake of his efforts in Haiti, Penn went on to create an emergency response NGO known as CORE, which not only trains and empowers local volunteers in the US to help communities deal with natural disasters like hurricanes, but more recently, even the Covid-19 challenge, by getting N-95 masks into the hands of those who need them most, as well as helping with on-the-ground Covid-19 testing for the population at large. 

We were an airplane that built itself after take off, and that’s a perilous ride in so many ways; and how it ended up surviving was the force of will of hundreds of people.

— Sean Penn, Co-Founder & Chairperson of the Board

The bottom line take-away message from seeing this documentary was in witnessing how a single person can leverage their own celebrity power to effect enormous good in alleviating the suffering of others in our world, and how one can inspire others to do likewise. 

I gave it five out of five stars *****

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