“A cross between paradise and paradise” is how President Mohamed Nasheed describes his country which sits precariously at the mercy of the Indian ocean. Those who would prefer to visit the Maldives and enjoy its white beaches whilst remaining oblivious to its violent political past and its threat of extinction might do best to avoid The Island President (2011). For everyone else, Jon Shenk’s riveting documentary film on the island chain’s first democratically elected leader and his war on global warming, should be seen.
With unrestricted access to the Maldivian leader, Shenk follows Nasheed from the UN Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in December 2009 to detail his subject’s election and brief reign prior to the summit. We get a recent political history of his country, which saw the 30 year dictatorial rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom challenged by democrat Nasheed in the 2008 presidential election, which the latter won. He quickly found that the country that he now governed was threatened by much than Gayoom’s administration; rising temperatures mean that the Maldives are being swallowed by the ocean that surrounds them.
From that moment forth, Nasheed dedicated himself to raising awareness of this and to trying to force some sort of forward movement in the battle against global warming at the Copenhagen summit. We are privy to moments of joy and despair, along with hushed conversations between high-ranking officials from various countries as the President desperately attempts to motivate change with the grave danger facing his country.
“We continue to shout”, he says whilst addressing an uninterested Security Council meeting, “even though we know that you’re not really listening.” The Island President beautifully captures the essence of this man who he will not let anything deter him. Combating climate change is no different to fighting for basic human rights in Nasheed’s eyes; if they do not stop the sea level rising then his country will cease to exist.
What is freedom worth when the country will not be there to enjoy it? An apposite question raised by a man who spent 18 months in solitary confinement due to fighting for democracy. More character study than environmental treatise, The Island President’s poignant epilogue reveals that Nasheed was ousted from power earlier this year and the previous regime reinstated. With the intrinsic link between the Maldives democratic movement and its war against the Indian ocean, Shenk’s film is perhaps now more important than ever.