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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Gives Emotional Cannes Opening Night Speech: ‘The Dictator Will Lose’

Volodymyr Zelenskyy Cannes
Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outshone all of the stars at the Cannes Film Festival after he addressed the opening night crowd of actors and filmmakers, delivering an emotional plea on behalf of his war-torn country. Appearing via video, Zelenskyy had festival-goers dabbing their eyes.

“We continue fighting,” Zelenskyy said. “We have no choice but to continue fighting for our freedom.”

Zelenskyy’s remarks came shortly before the premiere of “Final Cut,” a wacky zombie comedy that seems far removed from the brutality on display in Ukraine after Russia’s illegal invasion. But even as Cannes returned in glamorous form after two years of a global pandemic, Zelenskyy’s passionate rallying cry served as a reminder of the political turmoil still roiling the world.

“I’m sure that the dictator will lose,” Zelenskyy said, in a pointed reference to Vladimir Putin.

“We will win in this war,” he added. “Glory to Ukraine.”

The war in Ukraine looms large over this year’s Cannes. Several films featured at the festival, such as “The Natural History of Destruction,” the latest documentary from Ukranian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, are informed by the conflict. Cannes will also screen the final movie from Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius, a Ukraine-set documentary that the director was shooting in the city of Mariupol when he was killed in early April. Cannes has waded into the political situation in other ways, making no secret of its allegiance by banning Russians with ties to Putin’s government from the festival.

In his remarks, the Ukrainian president spoke about the responsibility of cinema in promoting values of democracy and freedom.

“Hundreds of people are dying today,” Zelenskyy said. “Is cinema going to stay quiet or is it going to stay out of it?”

He argued that movies have always played a crucial role in uniting people against authoritarianism and cruelty, reminding the crowd of the power of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” a satire of Nazism that debuted before America had even entered World War II.

“The world needs a new Chaplin who will prove [to] us that cinema isn’t silent,” Zelenskyy said. “We need cinema to show that each time the ending will be on the side of freedom.”

The opening night crowd included Cannes jury members Deepika Padukone, Rebecca Hall, Asghar Farhadi, Trinca, Ladj Ly, Noomi Rapace, Jeff Nichols and Joachim Trier. There were also several other power players and stars in attendance, including Julianne Moore, Eva Longoria, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences CEO Dawn Hudson, and “American Crime Story: Versace” star Édgar Ramírez.

Zelenskyy, who came to prominence as an actor on Ukrainian TV show “Servant of the People,” playing — in a bit of life imitating art — a Ukrainian president, understands the power of media. He has also spread his message while appearing at public events such as the Grammy Awards in April.

At the Grammys, Zelenskyy told the crowd that Ukrainian artists “wear body armor instead of tuxedos. They sing to the wounded in hospitals, even to those who can’t hear them. But the music will break through anyway.”

Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.