Film Review: The Island President

<i>Primary </i>meets environmental documentary. A must-see now that political strife has forced the film&#8217;s subject, President Mohamed Nasheed, to resign.

Seeing President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives fight global warming on an international stage is like seeing David triumph over Goliath. Months before Nasheed was forced out of his post, The Island President won the People's Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto Film Festival. Audiences were undoubtedly charmed into casting their vote not just because of the film itself, but the charisma of the documentary's titular subject.

Nasheed was imprisoned and tortured by the previous, dictatorial regime before being chosen in the first fair election in 30 years. This is the very same regime that ousted him from his office in February 2012. When he assumed office, he focused on one of the island nation's most pressing issues: staying above water. The Maldives, which has a population of just under a million and takes a few hours to reach—by plane!—from India, has over 2,000 islands, many just above sea level. The citizens' constant struggle with erosion became a hot political issue after the 2004 tsunami devastated entire islands in the archipelago, which had to be abandoned. Then the former president misappropriated over $100 million in aid in the aftermath of the natural disaster, paving the way for unrest and Nasheed’s election. The islands' continued erosion problems signify global warming. If carbon dioxide levels in the air continue to rise, the Maldives will be underwater in less than a century, a canary-in-the-coal-mine for the problems that will be unleashed by climate change.

Director Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan) had remarkable access to the inner workings of the president's regime. The audience is privy to the kind of compromises, drudgery and deal-making required of a politician, and its close trail of its subject hearkens back to 1960s documentary classic Primary. As president, Nasheed shows he's game to unusual PR tactics like holding a conference underwater in SCUBA gear in order to bring attention to his country's plight, so it's easy to understand why he would welcome a filmmaker's cameras.

Shenk chooses the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit as the movie's climax. Nasheed ends up being a bridge between the developed and developing countries. The biggest carbon emitters, such as the U.S. and Europe, want everyone to reduce carbon emissions, while developing nations such as India and China argue they use just a fraction of the carbon of these rich nations and need to increase carbon emissions as their nations grow. The Maldives, as a small developing nation, offers a compelling argument for developing nations to help their own. Being on the inside reveals diplomatic insights. "I think India wanted to be like Canada [is to the U.S.], hiding behind China," President Nasheed observes, since India is rather reluctant to make the kind of stand at the summit that China is. I can't imagine many leaders are willing to let a documentarian sit at their meetings with aides and occasionally showing the kind of political and PR legerdemain that must be used in these situations. The Island President may be aiming to be an environmental documentary, but its insider access actually makes it one of the most fascinating political documentaries in recent years.

Since audiences know that President Nasheed has since been forced to resign, one can’t help but agonize about his choice to prioritize global warming. Perhaps he should have devoted more energy to quieting the country’s Islamic radicalism, or making sure that people from the former regime, like judges, could no longer wield power. Even though Nasheed has lost his post, I don’t doubt his leadership. The documentary shows him to be an idealist and a pragmatist. Surely Nasheed, who has been exiled and held in solitary confinement during points in his life, understands the difficulty of changing from dictatorship to democracy. Those watching the documentary now have the benefit of hindsight. They may feel indignant, or touched with poignancy about his loss. I hope Shenk’s documentary will give the Maldives much-needed national attention as the country finds itself once again under the rule of a corrupt regime.