How do you win a war against the ocean? That’s the question posed in The Island President (2011), an astonishingly intimate account of a world leader fighting – quite literally – for his country’s survival. Jon Shenk’s documentary paints a vivid and powerful picture, enjoying extensive access to the Maldives’ first democratically elected leader, President Mohamed Nasheed, as he rallies against the very real effects of climate change on his homeland.
The popular conception of the Maldives, as Nasheed readily acknowledges, is that of an island paradise, home to honeymoon resorts and millionaire playboys. Ample shots of perfect sunsets against shimmering oceans and white sand beaches go some way to confirm this. But the country – an archipelago of around 1000 islands, with a population roughly equal to that of Leicester – has had a more turbulent history than you might think. Maldivians have lived through three decades of a brutal dictatorship, the boxing day tsunami, a popular democratic uprising, and now, with rising sea levels, the very existence of the islands is in jeopardy.
At the current rate, most of the Maldives’ inhabited islands will disappear under the Indian ocean by the end of the century, and the sealine is already vanishing rapidly. The Canute-ian shots of sunken palm trees and submerged walls of sandbags pale in comparison to a devastating scene where an Oxford climate scientist presents his projections to Nasheed, essentially serving the country its death sentence.
Nasheed, a political prisoner under his predecessor who underwent torture and solitary confinement, faces the crisis with optimism and humour, and his flair for publicity sees him hold the ‘world’s first underwater cabinet meeting’ to draw attention to his cause. But beneath his cheeky exterior lies the beating heart of a dogged and unrelenting activist. Fuelled by years of ferocious opposition, the president is keen to ruffle the feathers of his more staid international counterparts and seems keenly aware that results only come from being ‘a nuisance’.
The third act is devoted to the whirlwind of the UN’s disastrous 2009 Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, where Nasheed goes face-to-face with the leaders of China, India and the US, and manages some important concessions. It’s a gripping, toe-curling finale, but the filmmakers spin the final conference agreements (widely considered a failure) a little too positively, perhaps keen to give their hero a small victory within the pessimistic narrative. Indeed, Shenk’s film is more of a personal profile than a scientific essay, and it could have done with a few more supporting statistics along the way.
Such oversights are forgivable with such an immensely likeable and essentially decent man at the film’s core, trying to do right by his people in the face of insurmountable odds. And it is watched with a bittersweet tang, knowing that only last month, Nasheed was ousted from the presidency, apparently by gunpoint from loyalists of the previous administration. If nothing else, it gives The Island President even more relevance and imperative – a beautiful, vital portrait.