The Maldives is a chain of 1,200 islands, 200 or so inhabited, in the Indian Ocean, with the lowest elevation of any country on Earth. At an average elevation of a mere 1.5 meters above sea level, it is a nation in danger of being swallowed by the sea that surrounds it due to global warming and the elevated sea levels it causes. One man's efforts to save his country from environmental disaster are chronicled in the new documentary "The Island President," which also serves as a fascinating David vs. Goliath tale about fighting the sociopolitical system — one that takes on added poignancy and urgency in light of subsequent developments, but more about that later.
In 2008, filmmaker Jon Shenk ("The Lost Boys of Sudan") read a newspaper article about a man named Mohamed Nasheed, a civil rights activist who was elected president of the Maldives, ending the 30-year dictatorial rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. This considerable feat, coupled with Nasheed's environmental crusade and its global relevance, made him an ideal film subject, and Shenk flew to the country's capital, Malé, to pitch the president, who not only agreed but granted unprecedented access.
Shenk followed Nasheed throughout 2009 and some of 2010 as he worked tirelessly to spread his message, staging an underwater cabinet meeting in the capital and speaking at the United Nations Secretary General's Climate Summit in New York. In 2010, Nasheed was awarded the Champions of the Earth Award at the U.N. The world was paying attention, and life in the little country had markedly improved. "The Island President" ends on a hopeful note, and reinforces the notion that with hard work one can make a real difference. Audiences that have seen the film — it has opened in New York and several other cities and premieres in Los Angeles this week followed by a slow national rollout throughout April — "are surprised this guy exists," says Shenk, comparing Nasheed to the Lorax. "He's funny, he's mischievous, and he doesn't waver from his message. You wish this guy was your president and walk out thinking, 'Why can't we have leaders like that who fight for what they believe in?'"
Unfortunately for Nasheed, and the Maldives, the film's postscript isn't a happy one. On February 7, 2012, the president was forced to resign at gunpoint in a coup staged by security forces loyal to the former dictator. "I was shocked and immediately worried about Nasheed and his family and friends I'd met in the Maldives over the years," says Shenk, but he wasn't terribly surprised. "Thinking back on my experience there we really did get to know the political culture of the Maldives and the long shadow of the dictator really did still loom large in the capital. There was fear that should the dictator come back into power one day, there could be repercussions for supporting Nasheed," he explains, adding that the former president is still living in Malé, guarded 24/7, and still "committed to getting democracy back on track. There's a fair amount of hope because before Nasheed the freedom of the Maldives was so limited. There was no free press or free speech, no freedom of assembly. Now that the people have had civil liberties, the genie is out of the bottle. There's this huge outrage," he says, noting a protest rally that drew 10,000 people. "But the U.S. government still has not condemned the coup."
Shenk doesn't believe that the political developments overshadow the intent and message of the movie. "To me, they're so connected. What I was trying to do in the film was show how seamlessly Nasheed moved from the fight for civil rights and democracy to the fight against climate change. In his mind, It's the same. Climate change is going to inevitably impact so much in the area of human rights. If anything, it makes the story more poignant and the film more precious because it was able to document his work while he was in office. It underlines the difficulty of how hard it is to work on behalf of justice."
Shooting with a small crew of three for most of the film, a sound recorder and producer joining him, Shenk kept the production lean; the main cost was plane travel, but appropriately, "We were committed to making the production completely carbon neutral, done by purchasing carbon offsets, a combination of reforestation and investment in clean energy technology." In addition, "at every stage we tried to not use plastic, were very careful about electricity at home where we do a lot of our work. We have solar panels," he points out. Like Nasheed, he believes that one person can make a difference. "I'm convinced that if more people took it upon themselves to do that, there would be a tipping point in attitudes."
While the theatrical market is difficult for all independent movies, particularly documentaries, Shenk is thrilled with the reception "The Island President" has had at film festivals like Sundance, Telluride, Toronto and elsewhere. He refuses to contemplate his Oscar chances ("I'm kind of a superstitious guy"), but he's gratified that people are reacting positively to the film and suggests visiting theislandpresident.com for further information and calls to action including petitions to sign. "First and foremost, movies have to move you emotionally," says Shenk, who believes that his film, which will play on public TV next year, does exactly that. "I hope people watch it and are moved by the story."