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FILM REVIEW Radical responses from a star turn

JOHN GREEN recommends a documentary on actor Sean Penn's support for progressive social and political causes

Citizen Penn: The Role of a Lifetime
Directed by Don Hardy

WHEN you hear the name of actor, director and screenwriter Sean Penn, you might either be struck with admiration or cringe. 

But what is undeniable is that he is a man of strong views who acts on them without a thought about image or status. On top of his film career, he is a political and social activist and his commitment and progressive politics can hardly be faulted, as demonstrated in this documentary about his work in Haiti.

Yet some may perceive it as Penn acting the superman hero in his own brash Hollywood drama and perhaps something more low key and self-effacing would have been more appropriate. But that would not be Sean Penn. 

The documentary begins with a rapid montage of TV news footage, underlining his former reputation for hell-raising.

But, outspoken in supporting numerous political and social causes, his track record is impressive. In December 2002, he visited Iraq to protest against Bush’s plans for military action and he became a supporter of Hugo Chavez and his successor as Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, as well as supporting Cuba. He backed Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in October last year, criticising Turkey’s role in the conflict.

In September 2005, Penn had gone to New Orleans to aid Hurricane Katrina victims and five years later he responded to the Haiti earthquake by mobilising contacts amassed during his experience with Katrina, getting the Venezuelan government to supply doses of morphine for Haiti’s field hospitals — his organisation operated tents for 55,000 people.

Before starting the organisation, Penn had never been to Haiti and spoke no French or Creole yet he managed to virtually command his own emergency relief programme, with the aid of the US military and donations.

The resulting aid body grew over the next decade, evolving into Community Organised Relief Effort (Core), distributing aid to Haiti following the earthquake and the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew.

Over the last year, it has administered free Covid-19 tests in the US, something that Penn was able to edit into the closing credits.

What this film shows, perhaps not entirely intentionally, is that maybe you need someone vain enough to think he’s destined to make a difference and with enough nous to see how vanity projects of Hollywood celebrities can generate attention and dosh.

The film could have benefited from a deeper historical overview and context of Haiti’s continued poverty and misery but it’s a worthwhile record of another traumatic chapter in its history.

Available on Discovery+



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