Jon Shenk’s The Island President (2011) traces one man’s extraordinary journey from political prisoner to head of state. Mohamed Nasheed was democratically elected president of the Maldives in October 2008; previously, the archipelago of 1,200 tropical islands in the Indian Ocean – popular with tourists – had been under the despotic rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Nasheed, affectionately known by the islanders as Anni, was educated in Britain but returned to the Maldives to become a dissident journalist. An article in the opposition newspaper, Sangu, resulted in his arrest and detention. He was held in solitary confinement in a tin shack for 18 months. Over the next few years he was arrested and detained again, tortured and finally exiled; all for his criticism of Gayoom’s government. Nasheed’s political party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was founded in 2003 and vigorously campaigned for change, and when Nasheed finally managed to topple Gayoom from his thirty-year rule, he dedicated himself to the urgent environmental issues that threaten his country.
Filmed during Nasheed’s first year of office, The Island President covers this background and also confirms Nasheed as a force for the good, showing him as a skillful – if sometimes blunt – diplomat, well-spoken, astute, and hugely likeable. Shenk’s main focus is Nasheed’s admirable stance on climate change – the low-lying Maldives face extinction if the atmospheric concentration of CO2 goes above 350 parts per million.
The Island President begins and ends at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit and follows Nasheed on his international campaign to persuade members of the Summit to set the global emissions cap at 350 parts per million. Earlier the same year, Nasheed and his ministers had staged the world’s first ever underwater cabinet meeting to bring attention to their concerns. To set an example, Nasheed promised to make the Maldives carbon neutral within a decade.
Shenk contrasts the island scenes, beautiful beaches fringed by palm trees, with Nasheed’s political work, at home and abroad, and his attempts to avert environmental disaster. Shenk strips away the trappings of high office to reveal a man deeply committed to his country – humorous, stubborn, mischievous, and always accessible. Nasheed is even filmed arguing with his ministers and puffing away on cigarettes with his British Climate Advisor, Mark Lynas.
As a postscript to the film: in February this year, Nasheed was deposed in an alleged coup believed to be backed by Gayoom. Shenk’s The Island President amply demonstrates that Nasheed deserves international support to ensure the Maldives remains a democracy and to keep his environmental campaign high on the global agenda.
For more info on the Human Rights Watch Festival 2012, visit ff.hrw.org.