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Mgrublian Center for Human Rights Director Meets with Filmmakers Sean Penn, Evgeny Afineevsky to Discuss Crisis Leadership and Upcoming Documentaries on the War in Ukraine

The full interview will be released on UN Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, marking the 75th Anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and passing of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide 


CLAREMONT, CA. — Professor Wendy Lower, Director of Claremont McKenna College’s Mgrublian Center for Human Rights, recently met with Sean Penn and Evgeny Afineevsky about their new documentary films, Superpower and Freedom on Fire, both on the war in Ukraine. 


Afineevsky’s Freedom on Fire chronicles the first year of the war in Ukraine, the people’s upheaval, and enduring sacrifices. Penn’s Superpower follows the unfolding crisis from day one when he was with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, and in the trenches of eastern Ukraine following the initial invasion by Russia. 


Meeting Sean Penn and Evgeny Afineevsky “was an opportunity that I could never have imagined decades ago when I discovered Ukraine and decided to focus my research on its history of war and genocide,” said Lower.  “Putin's war against Ukraine has had a unifying effect, certainly in Ukraine as the population fights for its life and freedom, but also around the world as observers witness a genocidal campaign that even the International Criminal Court has acknowledged with an arrest warrant against Putin.”


The opportunity was facilitated by Bonnie Abaunza, mother of CMC graduate Larissa Abaunza ’18, former board member of the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights and social impact expert, who has spent her career advocating for human rights through film.  The conversation with two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn and Afineevsky, an Academy and Emmy Award-nominated Israeli-American film director, producer, and cinematographer, focused on the importance of leadership in times of crisis. Penn’s relationship with Zelenskyy and his seven trips to Ukraine, provided a unique view into the catastrophic events and the extraordinary strength of ordinary people thrust into the horrors of Putin’s genocidal campaign. 


In another recent interview with CBS News, Penn reflected on why Zelenskyy agreed to do the film. "I think he understands that part of war-fighting in the new world is communications on a lot of levels," Penn said. "I think that what he felt was that there was going to be a time when tools like this — communications tools — would be part of the war-fighting effort."


Penn, also known for his humanitarian activism in Haiti and other disaster zones, was inspired by the masterful work of Afineevsky’s film, Winter on Fire, which covered the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity (Maidan) in Kyiv. Afineevsky returned to Ukraine in 2022 to capture the experiences of Ukrainians in flight, in bunkers, and on the front lines, resulting in his current project, Freedom on Fire, to be released in February, 2024.


Meanwhile, Penn arrived in Kyiv to produce a documentary on President Zelenskyy but was forced into hiding with Zelenskyy when the Russian invasion began (he was being targeted  for assassination by Putin's special operators). At that time, Penn realized that he could help. Penn's new film, Superpower, is a study of effective leadership during times of peace and war, and a warning about the devastation of divisiveness.  


As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, “We need to live up to our commitment to protecting human rights, and to intervening when we see genocide unfolding so blatantly,” said Lower. “Doing so requires humanitarian leadership and unity across all sectors of society, and filmmaking is a powerful weapon for chronicling clearly and accurately events on the ground and documenting the crimes.” Lower concluded, “We have a lot to learn from Ukraine and Ukrainians right now about the price of freedom and the sacrifices they are making.”


About Claremont McKenna College:

Claremont McKenna College is a private liberal arts college located east of Los Angeles in Southern California. Since 1946, Claremont McKenna’s mission has been to prepare students for thoughtful and productive lives and responsible leadership in business, government, and the professions. The College attracts a student body that is broadly diverse and accomplished beyond the classroom. Renowned for expertise in economics and government, Claremont McKenna’s faculty are accomplished scholars who are committed teachers in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Students are drawn by the College’s unparalleled offerings, including: 11 research institutes and centers; the ability to conduct research one-on-one with faculty; and access to leaders, artists, and visionaries who engage with students at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. The College emphasizes the integration of leadership and innovation experience within institutes, student enterprises, on-campus fellowships, and sponsored off-campus internships. Claremont McKenna is a 1,300-student coeducational, residential, liberal arts college in Claremont, California, and is a member of The Claremont Colleges.


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