Sean Penn Reveals Feature Documentary About Haitian Relief Efforts by Filmmaker Don Hardy

Sean Penn and Julia Roberts - Getty - H 2020
Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Sean Penn was a little late to his fundraiser Wednesday night and though he didn’t say why — was it L.A.’s brutal rush hour traffic outside event venue The Wiltern or, perhaps, a work commitment? — but he did reveal that the night before, he was driving down “a snowy, 30-below road” in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Close to midnight, Penn was on the hunt for a hotel and a bed where he could sleep a couple hours before flying to L.A. to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his nonprofit CORE.

Somewhere on that road, he clocked a church with a sign that read: “As for me, my redeemer lives somewhere.” As he detailed the story from the podium, Penn paused then to make a point: “Everyone lives somewhere.” Rather than try to explain where God resides or extrapolate meaning from that spiritual message, Penn just said he wanted to skip the next part of the speech because it didn’t matter. What did in that moment was the concept of redemption.

“Probably all of us in some way are in some kind of endless pursuit of redemption,” Penn added before offering that he’s aware that in many circles, people are under the perception he needs more of it than others. “Be it one of secular or religious thought and there’s no question that that had a lot to do with you know all of our initial efforts [in Haiti]. You go and you’re focusing on people who have lost and suffered so much, but you’re immediately recognizing how much you need to be there and how much we need to be a helpful part of each other’s lives.”

Penn and his team have felt that need to help out in Haiti ever since the devastating 2010 earthquake that reportedly claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and caused billions in damages. Shortly thereafter, Penn’s organization would become known as J/P HRO (the org announced a rebranding last year that included an expansion of relief efforts to parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean) and together, they’ve come a long way over a decade. To mark the milestone, CORE staffers organized a packed program featuring honorees (artist Ed Ruscha, civil rights attorney Ben Crump, filmmaker and philanthropist Fernando Sulichin and L.A. royalty Rosetta and Balthazar Getty), musical performances (Dwight Yoakam, Beck, Jenny Lewis, Henning May and house band Portugal. The Man curated by Linda Perry and We Are Hear), a funny host (Conan O’Brien), a live auction (the event itself raised $5 million), A-list guests (Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts, Jimmy Iovine, and CAA’s Bryan Lourd) and a bar by Casamigos.

Penn thanked his friends and supporters for showing up and contributing — both financially and physically — to relief efforts over the years. Before that, though, he name-checked a few people at the start of his remarks, including U.S. Ambassador Daniel Foote who made headlines last month when he was recalled from his appointment in Zambia by the State Department. The move came after Foote issued a statement that denounced Zambia’s treatment of LGBTQ citizens in the conservative country. “There’s somebody in this room had the utter arrogance to think that he could register upset with the country of Zambia because they did some small thing like imprison two people for homosexuality for 15 years. And God forbid, a U.S. Ambassador stands up and says, ‘No.’ Of course, said ambassador was immediately recalled and chucked. I want to say thank you to Ambassador Dan Foote for being here tonight,” Penn said.

Foote enjoyed the praise, bolting from his seat after he heard his name to get closer to the spotlight and flex his biceps. Dressed in a gray suit with his hair slicked back, Foote spent much of the night whistling loudly, applauding at odd moments and speaking loudly to his seat mates during honoree’s speeches. His night also ended early as he was guided toward the exit by multiple security guards who told The Hollywood Reporter that he seemed to be intoxicated and in need of assistance from a son who was in the audience. 

Back to Penn. He also mentioned filmmaker Don Hardy (with whom he worked on 2013’s The Human Experiment, which explored the effects of chemicals found in everyday household products). Penn announced a re-teaming on a feature documentary about his work in Haiti using footage taken over the years, even at times when he didn’t know cameras were rolling. “I’m so grateful to Don Hardy for being such a good man and such a diligent filmmaker,” Penn said. “I don’t know where he got [this footage]. I got no clue. I used to have a no filming rule.”

Penn then cued up a clip that showed his passion, hard work and intensity on behalf of the ravaged country. None of that came as a surprise to his CORE CEO Ann Lee, who talked about his tireless commitment in her remarks as well as his often unconventional approach. “He complains that he’s nothing but a figure head and a puppet for the organization and his job is mainly to raise money … but if you were, I would not still be here giving my blood, sweat, tears and definitely my sanity if that were true,” she said of her boss, who worked the room with ease and a smile, appearing to have a great time. He was spotted having close conversations with Roberts, Jackson and DiCaprio, and at other times, smoking cigarettes inside the venue. “It’s because you are not just a figure head but the beating, bloody heart and soul and the directional guide of the organization that I’m still here. There isn’t a single emergency where you haven’t pushed us to think harder, better, stronger, to think out of the box and to take risks and not just to talk about what we’re going to do [or] what we want to do, just to get shit done.”

She added: “You’ve even pulled out some magic tricks — sometimes inspiring, often scaring the best out of people and I am lucky you have brought out the best in us and out of CORE. Thank you, thank you, thank you for having no sense of self-preservation, being a hard-headed loon and for starting all of this and keeping us going and moving everyone in this room to take action.”

Speaking of action, the live auction generated a lot of it thanks to people like DiCaprio, who donated a Chuck Close lithograph (that sold for $110,000) and had his eye on a Robert Rauschenberg painting that went to Frank Giustra, who also outbid Sean Parker. Roberts tried to get her table to go in on the “Trip of a Lifetime: Travel to the Maldives for an Eco-Diving Experience,” but she was outbid by other guests. Portugal. The Man donated a living room concert performance that went for $140,000. 

Meanwhile, host O’Brien generated a room full of laughter when he recalled a story about his own trip to Haiti. While wearing a “spectacular” jacket featuring the Haitian flag, O’Brien said that when he was visiting, he handed out t-shirts to local residents that were printed with his production company moniker — Team Coco. He was surprised by their responses. “I asked them why are you laughing and they explained to me that Coco is Haitian slang for vagina,” he said. “I was handing out hundreds of Team Vagina t-shirts to children, priests. … I almost got arrested. I had to tell people I was a gynecologist. It was a shocking turn of events.”

Patricia Arquette’s time at the podium was more serious. The recent Golden Globe winner showed up to honor the Gettys and she did so by praising their many philanthropic efforts on behalf of organizations like Chrysalis, Africa Foundation and GiveLove.Org, the latter of which she started with Rosetta to improve sanitation in developing countries. “Rosetta and I have been best friends since we were 6 and 7 years old. I first met Balthazar when he was just a teenager, spray painting and running around Hollywood with my brother David. He moved into our house when he was a teenager and they had a rap band. I played cupid and introduced Rosetta and Balthazar to one another and now they have four beautiful children.”

Arquette and the Gettys also made the journey to Haiti following the earthquake to aid in relief efforts. “There were times when it was a little more than hairy, but I will tell you this: If you ever need anyone to sweet talk thousands of food tickets out of a corrupt mayor, I hope you have the good fortune to have Balthazar Getty by your side and Rosetta beside you as you fall asleep at night in a tent laughing like you did when you were 6 and 7.”

In her acceptance speech, the admittedly shy Rosetta said she wanted to share how she had her own experience with extreme poverty during her youth. “It’s not a particularly comfortable memory to revisit but it feels relevant to disclose tonight and it has compelled much of my work for CORE,” she said, with her husband by her side. “When I was a little girl, my mother woke me up in the middle of the night so she could feed me scraps of leftover food from her waitress shift that evening. As a single working mother, she had very little help and used every resource that was available to her to provide and care for us. The reason I’m sharing this with you is because extreme poverty was and still is all around us.”

It also has inspired her passion to give back, which she encouraged the guests seated inside The Wiltern to do — for CORE. “I first became involved with CORE in 2010 when Patricia and I traveled to Haiti in the wake of the country’s catastrophic earthquake to see how we could help. On our plane ride over, we bumped into Sean Penn, who was busy mobilizing a network of doctors and emergency workers to take action from this terrible crisis and I knew immediately that I wanted to support his efforts.”

Nearly every speech weaved one way or another back to Penn even if he did his best to deflect the attention and focus back on what proved to be his personal theme of the night — redemption. "I do understand that not everyone has the luxury of time to put their own boots on the ground, but the forward sharing of your care and cash indeed wear its own boots on the ground where we work in Haiti or North Carolina — where our honoree Ben Crump grew up — or the greater Caribbean region. The common ground that those boots share is our common humanity. We’re not here tonight because we want your help, we’re here tonight because we need your help."

In closing, he said, “I hope we can all leave tonight excited with all the great musicians and feeling like we all played a role in touching our own redemption.”