The Island President

Directed by Jon Shenk
Produced by Richard Berge & Bonni Cohen
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films
English & Dhievi with English subtitles
USA. 101 min. Rated PG

The Island President makes climate change dramatic, political, personal, and the right stuff of leadership. The imminent future of the 400,000 people who live on the beautiful islands of the Maldives becomes the determined mission of its newly democratically elected president—which may have led to the coup against him last month.

The background on President Mohamed Nasheed’s remarkable history presents him as the Nelson Mandela of his Indian Ocean archipelago, who tackled climate change in his first term in office like Mandela fought against apartheid. The film would seem hagiographic if his biography weren’t so stirring. Educated in the United Kingdom, he returned to protest the harsh, decades-long dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (the Maldives’ second president since its 1965 independence from Britain), and was in and out of prison for over 20 years, including periods of solitary confinement and exile. He gives the filmmakers a tour of the awful prisons he was kept in, and they found archival footage of brutal police actions against protestors, who in interviews seem like the precursors to the Arab Spring. What a contrast to the gorgeous aerial images of the country’s coral islands, all set to Radiohead’s music.

But when Nasheed won his country’s first multiparty presidential election in 2008 at age 41, he found his dreams for expanded education and economic development beyond the ritzy tourist resorts stymied by more immediate physical problems—land erosion and shortages of drinkable water caused by the rising water table and heightened waves. He meets with an environmental activist at Oxford armed with a barrage of statistics warning that his nation could be underwater by 2050, or 2100 at the latest. Nasheed hires the expert, Mark Lynas, as his personal advisor on making the Maldives carbon-neutral within a decade, setting an example for the world.

Nasheed then rolls up his sleeves and travels internationally to change the mindset of politicians who have blocked negotiations year after year. He stages eye-catching media events, like an underwater cabinet meeting using scuba equipment, and dives into the confrontation between industrialized countries versus developing countries finally getting their piece of the pollution pie. (His ability to hone scientific data into thrilling oratory is quite impressive, and he’s handsome to boot.)

With Nasheed allowing director Jon Shenk incredible access, we see him forcefully challenge high-level representatives from China and India, who are so used to spouting anti-colonial clichés that they are brought up short by Nasheed’s arguments that a third world country, populated by Muslims of color, is directly impacted by their rhetorical intransigence. (The cameras tend to get kicked out of meetings when down-and-dirty compromise seems possible.) It is particularly revealing to see what neophytes the Chinese delegates were at negotiating with the coalition of island nations Nasheed marshaled compared to how Japan financially manipulated some of these same small countries in Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove (2009), regarding dolphin hunting issues. While the general press covering the Copenhagen Climate Summit deemed it a failure because no binding commitments resulted, Nasheed certainly raised many countries’ consciousness.

Unfortunately, since the film’s New York premiere at the DOC NYC 2011 Festival, Nasheed’s attention to long-range international affairs may have cost him in the short term after reactionary forces violently forced him out of office. India, ironically, helped broker a compromise for new elections, which will undoubtedly put climate change on the back burner, even as the waters continue to rise around the islands.

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