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Revolution and Resignation: Director Jon Shenk Talks About 'The Island President'

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire March 28, 2012 at 1:19PM

Jon Shenk's profile of Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Republic of Maldives, "The Island President," opens today at New York's Film Forum, following a surge of press after Nasheed was forced to leave office following a coup d'etat by loyalists to his predecessor, dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

In the United States when Obama was elected, there was a sense that the Republican party just shut down Obama. Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, you felt that struggle. You were either trying to shut Obama down, or you wanted him to step out and be more powerful. That was kind of multifold in the Maldives. You really felt that this opposition was going to do everything it could to undermine this guy. He had a huge task ahead of him. He had to modernize an economy. He had to root out corruption. You can imagine there were a lot of people that were upset by what he was doing. So in that sense, it doesn't surprise me that they ultimately were able to create this coup that unseated him.

"Nasheed has pivoted and he's back on the streets working the same channels that he worked. He lost this chess move, but I'm not so sure he'll lose in the end."

Also Nasheed has pivoted and he's back on the streets working the same channels that he worked. He lost this chess move, but I'm not so sure he'll lose in the end.

The genie is out of the bottle there. People, they went from having one state-run television station, now they have five. They went from one newspaper to dozens. Once people have that freedom and they've tasted what good governance is about, it's kind of hard to put that back in. Not to say that can't be done with guns and brute force, but Nashiid has communicated to me when I talked to him, that he has some hope that in way that there's more support for democracy that there ever has been.

What do you say to people who believe Nasheed resigned too easily?

I think a lot of it is ignorance. People don't know what happened because they haven't sunk their teeth into it. God knows that there are a million stories all the time vying for our attention. But if you spend an hour looking at reports and good journalism that's been done in the Maldives, you will not walk away thinking anything other than, this was a coup! There was money from the outside that was paying off police to mutiny; Nasheed resigned essentially under the threat that there would be a bloodbath if he didn't. In fact, there was a great report that a news organization in Australia did where they one of the guys who organized the coup to admit that on camera. He proudly says, "There is going to be a new President tomorrow. Either it's going to happen peacefully, or it's not going to happen peacefully."

In many ways, I think Nasheed did the right thing. Ultimately would have it been better if he had somehow managed to tip off that he was doing it under duress? The way it came across in those first couple hours was unfortunately smooth. He read a statement that said, "I'm resigning." So it seemed like it had the gloss of a real transfer of power. Almost immediately, if you started reading the inside story, you learn that he essentially had a gun to his head. Nasheed is not the kind of guy who is going to let his staff, supporters, the people on the streets, go through what they were threatening.

"The Island President"
Samuel Goldwyn "The Island President"
This begs the question, given that the film's coming out now, why didn't you choose to go back and document the latest developments?

That's a great question. Of course when you're making a film about a current event and something happens, there's an insecure part that goes, maybe we should change the film. But at the end of the day, the film is the film. It's an incredible story. It captures his first year in office. In some ways it's more precious now. In some ways, it's like wow, the pursuit of good in the world is really difficult. The people who fight that fight are doing so on risky terms. I think that what's going on right now is very dramatic. It could make for an incredible film one day.

But I think "The Island President" is a film about a guy who suddenly became president after years of fighting for democracy. He woke up and he realized the natural extension of that was the fight for human rights on a global scale.

One wishes that we had leaders all over the world who were that committed and that energetic to the cause.

This article is related to: Interviews, The Island President

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