Title: The Island President
Director: Jon Shenk
A socially engaged documentary with more heart than head, “The Island President” takes as its central figure the charismatic, crusading (and now ex-) president of the Maldives, Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed, detailing his efforts to drive climate change conversation and cooperation to the top of the international to-do list. A friendly, somewhat lightweight portrait that doesn’t really dig down into the issues at its core, director Jon Shenk’s movie, the Audience Award winner at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival, unexpectedly achieves ancillary connection as a ground-floor look at the political clash of wills that takes place at the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009.
Situated in the Indian Ocean, about 250 miles southwest of India, the Maldives is an archipelago of almost 2,000 islands, about 200 of which are inhabited. It’s also the lowest country on Earth, with 80 percent of its land mass less than three-and-a-half-feet above sea level, and its highest point only eight feet. Naturally, this fact makes it extraordinarily sensitive to sea level rise, which the 2004 tsunami heartbreakingly confirmed. For this reason and others, the English-educated Nasheed views climate change through the lens of human rights, as it matters to the very survival of his homeland.
Shenk, who previously gave voice to a disenfranchised people with “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” has a compelling subject, and lots of access to Nasheed and his cabinet members. Shenk’s film spans five continents, and certainly gives a sense of Nasheed’s tireless wheeling and dealing. Carefully chosen music cues from Radiohead (a deep cross selection of their work) also give the movie a sense of momentum, importance and forward-leaning uplift, even when its filmmaker fails to connect some of the dots regarding his subject’s plans.
Through it all, Nasheed comes across as a happy-warrior reformer (he embarks on a radical 10-year plan to make the Maldives entirely carbon neutral), and an absolutely press savvy one to boot (he holds a cabinet meeting underwater). Yet he’s also enough of a pragmatist to realize that in the end he has to take what he can get, which makes tensions palpable with some of his ministers at Copenhagen, as they try to buck China’s desire to leave the conference without a letter unofficially endorsing (but not binding) countries to work to reduce industrial carbon dioxide levels from 387 parts per million to 350.
It’s this in-the-weeds view of the Copenhagen Summit that is most fascinating. In chronicling back-and-forth, make-nice meetings, “The Island President” highlights and underscores how simple human miscommunication and confusion (notwithstanding their intransigence, junior members of China’s delegation have whispery sidebars just trying to figure out the respective heads of state of Grenada, the Maldives and Sudan) can scuttle necessarily grand bargains and deals.
That appeal is admittedly a bit wonky, though. Just recently, in February of this year, Nasheed was forced at gunpoint to resign, in a coup d’etat orchestrated by the military and other institutional forces allegedly still loyal to the former dictator of 30 years, Marmoon Abdul Gayoom. That Nasheed’s own vice president, however, was sworn in as his replacement, hints at a long-bubbling complexity of national turmoil and religious dissent (the Maldives is a Sunni Muslim country, and some opposition to Nasheed’s rule was fomented on that front) that Shenk rather scrupulously avoids. Doubtlessly, the director views these as sidebar elements to Nasheed’s main quest, but in failing to delve into them he actually delivers a somewhat blinded and blinkered portrait that leans toward hero worship when the multifaceted reality is doubtlessly more interesting.
For more information, visit www.TheIslandPresident.com.
Written by: Brent Simon