The photographers went crazy in front of Sean Penn and Bob Geldoff during the press conference on Cinema for Peace in Berlin in February. Penn asked the photographers to calm down. If it was so important to get a shot every time he lit a smoke, he could do it especially for them after the session. Geldoff, with sunglasses on against the camera flashes, underlined the responsibility of the press to represent the facts about humanitarian action, instead of only reporting on misery.
The hotel room was comprised of around 90 percent photographers, who were mostly interested in facial gestures. I had to break through with a serious question – about Penn’s activities with his organization1 after the earthquake in Haiti: he must have learned a lot from dealing with such a complicated situation without experience? His project is supported by Cinema for Peace.
As I was in Haiti at the same time last year, I also commented on the rumours heard that he had moved thousands out of Portau-Prince to a “desert place”-camp where there were no opportunities for jobs or income? For eight minutes the film star Sean Penn looks me in the eye and explains the details of his operation in Haiti. His organization had treated 75 000 patients, removed 60 000 cubic meters of rubble from the ruins, distributed 12 000 tents, and continues to help out with schools, water purification and cholera prevention.
The removed thousands had given informed consent and had no chance of paid labour where they came from. But the negative rumour I had referred to actually stopped money transfers from the UN, resulting in a lot of deaths.
Penn emphasised the many hundreds of people they had saved by moving them away from dangerous and devastated areas.
The star-struck atmosphere of the conference changed.
The camera flashes tailed off. Penn, who had looked like he had come straight from last night’s party – slouching laid back in his chair – changed too; suddenly, he was deadly serious, stating emphatically to me that only 7000 of the needed 400 000 apartments had been rebuilt, how could normal life be restored? His organization is helping, spending more than a million dollars a month. And with a message from Berlin to his home country, the man who spends a lot of time with the refugees in the tents, says the financial equivalent of only six American bombs would have helped the whole Port-au-Prince out of devastation.
So what is this helping arm of cinema really? At the very least, a fund-raising organization addressing the world through film.
I am here, together with five hundred others at the gala dinner; stars and celebrities sitting at tables for 1500 Euro per table. And outside are parked twenty white electrical cars bearing the sign “VIP Shuttle”, helping the most famous getting there. Opel is a sponsor for Cinema for Peace with their environmental program called Project Earth. After the flash-fest around the red carpet, they all enter the main ballroom of the Hotel Regent Berlin.