“The Island President,” director Jon Shenk’s political documentary about one politician’s crusade to raise awareness about the effects of climate change on his country, might need a new title before it opens in theaters (March 28). The fate of Mohamed Nasheed, who until Feb. 7 was indeed an island president but is now an island ex-president, demonstrates just how quickly political fortunes can change.
Nasheed stepped down from his position as president of the Maldives, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, after weeks of protests and a police and military mutiny. Nasheed’s popularity had been sinking due to the Maldives’ sluggish economy, but matters reached a head last month when the president ordered the military to arrest Abdulla Mohamed, a criminal court judge whom the president alleged had been working to undermine the nation’s courts under the influence of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the dictator who had ruled the Maldives for 30 years prior to Nasheed’s victory in the country’s first democratic election, which took place in 2008. At protests last month, the police turned against Nasheed’s administration and refused to disperse the assembled protesters.
Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint by a collection of police, military and governmental rivals, and led his supporters in a march on the country’s streets, where they were met by riot police. Mohamed Janeel, the newly instated interior minister, accused Nasheed of terrorism. Jameel has been part of an increasingly hardline Islamic movement to enter the Maldives political scene in opposition to the more moderate Nasheed. While Reuters reported that an arrest warrant was issued for former President Nasheed, he remains free because of his many supporters.
Speaking on NPR’s Morning Edition (February 21) from the Maldives, Nasheed denied the official line of the country’s new regime, which has said Nasheed resigned willingly. Nasheed said that the coup to oust him from power was engineered by supporters of the previous dictator’s regime, who teamed up with a small group of Islamic extremists that opposed the more secular ex-president. Before the coup, these extremists have been mostly politically powerless, failing to win any parlimentary seats. Looking ahead, Nasheed hopes that a new election will take place in July; he is currently under a court order that limits his movements. You can listen to the full interview here.
Shenk’s film focuses on Nasheed’s work in office to raise global awareness about climate change by highlighting the grave consequences his low-lying country could face if global sea levels rise. Once, to illustrate the point, Nasheed convened a cabinet meeting underwater in which all the participants wore scuba gear. “The Island President” is a feat of documentary filmmaking if only for its unprecedented access to a global political figure: The director asked for and received permission to follow the president during his first year in office, eventually accompanying him to the Copenhagen Climate Conference, where his impassioned remarks succeeded in turning around the votes of many of the delegates.
TOH sat down with Shenk and then-President Nasheed after the film’s screening in Toronto, where it won the People’s Choice Documentary Award. You can see the full video here. After its success in Toronto and Telluride, “The Island President” was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films, which originally slated it for a US release in February.
In a statement, Shenk as well as the film’s producers, Bonni Cohen and Richard Berge, announced that they “stand in solidarity” with Nasheed. They also said they had heard from eyewitnesses in the Maldives that allies of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the dictator who ruled the island nation before Nasheed’s election, had raided the national television station, arrested journalists and replaced the station’s programming with pro-Gayoom material.
In The New York Times op-ed section, Nasheed highlighted the difficulty the nation has faced in transitioning to a fully democratic system, writing:
For the first time in its history, the Maldives — a group of islands in the Indian Ocean — had a democratically elected president, parliament and local councils.
But it also had a judiciary handpicked by the former president, which was now hiding behind a democratic constitution. These powerful judges provided protection for the former president, his family members and political allies, many of whom are accused of corruption, embezzlement and human rights crimes.
At the same time, new laws guaranteeing freedom of speech were abused by a new force in Maldivian politics: Islamic extremists. The former president’s cabinet members threw anti-Semitic and anti-Christian slurs at my government, branding as apostates anyone who tried to defend the country’s liberal Islamic traditions and claiming that democracy granted them and their allies license to call for violent jihad and indulge in hate speech.
In response to these issues, my government asked the United Nations to help us investigate judicial abuses and ordered the arrest of Abdulla Mohamed, the chief judge of the criminal court, on charges of protecting the former president and corrupting the judicial system. However, in a dramatic turn of events on Tuesday, the former president’s supporters protested in the streets, and police officers and army personnel loyal to the old government mutinied and forced me, at gunpoint, to resign. To avoid bloodshed, I did so. I believe this to be a coup d’état and suspect that my vice president, who has since been sworn into office, helped to plan it.
Choosing to stand up to the judge was a controversial decision, but I feel I had no choice but to do what I did — to have taken no action, and passively watched the country’s democracy strangled, would have been the greatest injustice of all.
The problems we are facing in the Maldives are a warning for other Muslim nations undergoing democratic reform. At times, dealing with the corrupt system of patronage the former regime left behind can feel like wrestling with a Hydra: When you remove one head, two more grow back. With patience and determination, the beast can be slain. But let the Maldives be a lesson for aspiring democrats everywhere: The dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.