In the beautiful, meditative new documentary “The Island President,” we’re introduced to Mohamed Nasheed, the democratically elected president of the chain of 2,000 islands in the Indian Ocean known as The Maldives. After three decades of tyrannical rule, the islands gained democratic independence, nominated Nasheed, and found their calling in the world – to expose the catastrophe of global warming by example. The Maldives, Nasheed explains, are slowly disappearing into the ocean. It’s a truth loaded with symbolic and literal weight – in the face of global warming, the entire culture of the Maldives could be lost forever, here one day, gone the next.
The documentary begins at the UN’s Climate Change Conference, in Copenhagen during December 2009. We’re first introduced to Nasheed, a diminutive, trim, highly educated man, as he flits through the massive conference. “Who is this little guy who is commanding such media attention?” we wonder, before the film toggles back a year and gives us some background. The Maldives are mostly known as a tropical vacation getaway for the rich and famous (Nasheed charmingly describes it as “a cross between paradise and paradise”) but, as Nasheed notes, “we have not one hill.”
The islands are basically at sea level, so with rising water levels and the unpredictability and dangerousness of monsoons, they are eroding quickly. Nasheed surveys one island that is drifting into the ocean, palm trees bent where there used to be soil. It’s such a powerful image because climate change — no matter how much we read or listen about it on NPR — remains a somewhat abstract concept, at least to those of us in the developed West. It hovers as one of those “issues” we should be concerned about, when we have a couple of minutes to worry about that kind of stuff. “The Island President” shows us how real the problem really is.
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For most of the beginning of the movie, “The Island President” acts as a kind of catch-up history lesson about the Maldives and a biography of Nasheed himself, who went away to school in England and returned a vocal and active opponent against the tyrannical President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Those beautiful beaches, that tourists pay untold fortunes to visit, were where Gayoom housed his prisons, where he would jail, torture, and kill dissidents (Nasheed was arrested ten times and tortured twice). Once Nasheed mobilized the Democratic Party and won the election, he was aghast at how crooked the government really was, and how countless millions were spent lining the pockets of Gayoom’s cronies, instead of being put into the fortification and development of the islands.
Nasheed is full of blustery, optimistic energy, and does things like publicly announce that the Maldives will be the first country to be completely carbon neutral in ten years. (Shortly after, a reporter asks him how long he’s been president, to which he shoots back, “Seven months.”) Another time, Nasheed holds a parliamentary meeting underwater, with members of parliament dressed in scuba gear, and desks and cabinets fully submerged on the ocean floor, to showcase the severity and urgency of the issue of climate change.
When the UN Climate Change Summit is introduced, it gives the movie some direction, and something the rest of the narrative can build towards. It serves as the protracted climax, with Nasheed in a battle of wills against the three biggest polluters – India, China, and America – to sign a treaty that would insure decreased carbon emissions. Armed with his team (including a lovably tweedy British environmental advisor who describes weather patterns and soil erosion with brittle seriousness), he plans on attending the summit and having the whole world take note of the Maldives, and how symbolic their plight is of a greater, global issue. At one point he stops off at the UN in New York and announces, “New York is at the same sea level as the Maldives.”
Tensions rise as the different factions fail to agree on a pact, but you wonder if the treaty represents a lot of hot air. The agreement is legally nonbinding, and there isn’t any kind of policing body that makes sure that the countries who participate will actually follow through. But Nasheed’s charisma borders on the magnetic and it’s hard not to get caught up in the fight, even if the dividends it could provide are mostly symbolic.
When you read about Nasheed, though, you wish that the documentary crew had stuck around with the president for a little while longer. Starting at the end of 2011, and up through 2012, political parties loyal to the despotic Gayoom seized control of the capital and forced Nasheed to step down from his presidency, fearing violence. The state of the chain of islands, who had so valiantly vowed to be a world leader in reducing their carbon footprint, remains very much up in the air. It’s amazing to think that all that work that Nasheed had done could suddenly become undone, but there it was, like a changing tropical wind.
The intimate scope of “The Island President” actually makes the cause seem more immediate and powerful. Shot and directed by Jon Shenk, it’s filled with beautiful widescreen images of desert islands that dot the ocean like huge sea turtles, and as the camera glides through the water, it’s accompanied by orchestral snippets from various Radiohead songs, giving everything some much-needed atmospheric oomph. It’s foreboding enough when Nasheed visits New York for the first time, under an overcast sky, it’s even more so when accompanied with the opening strains of “Everything in Its Right Place.”
As the portrait of a man and the plight of a people, “The Island President” is peerless. It’s the kind of bold, beautiful documentary filmmaking that isn’t afraid to get into the nitty gritty of the situation, without giving up any of its inherent entertainment value. There’s an aspect of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to the tale of a scrappy young president and his single-minded crusade to save the planet, and you can’t help but get at least a little bit inspired. You imagine those loons that claim that global warming is just some myth made up by the left watching this movie and being transformed. Those droopy palm trees say it all. [A]