The Island President

What Climate Change? What Maldives?

The Island President (at the Toronto International Film Festival). Director: Jon Shenk, USA, 2011, 101 minutes

The Maldives should be celebrating their role in setting an example for the Arab Spring. In 2008, a longstanding dictatorship was toppled, and former dissident and prisoner Mohamed Nasheed won his country’s first democratic election.

Instead, Nasheed is watching as the waters of the Indian Ocean encroach on the 2000 islands of his country, most of which sits at 1.5 meters above sea level.  There’s not much time left. This is the subject of The Island President, a new documentary by Jon Shenk at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Nasheed was there, too, a movie star in the company of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and the rest of the army of glitterati filing down red carpets.

The Island President isn’t a disaster film in the style of Contagion. For one thing, it’s real – not to downplay the staggering plausibility of Contagion. For another, there’s something we can do about it, if we reduce carbon levels now. And this isn’t An Inconvenient Truth. Nasheed is flesh, blood and charisma – the anti-Al Gore. No power point here.

We move in the film from Nasheed’s early years as a politival opponent in and out of jail to his current role as the voice for a small country that faces obliteration. You couldn’t ask for a more cinematic landscape, but it’s eroding at an alarming rate. The azure water, a magnet for rich tourists from around the world, is rising, a reality check for those flat-earth types (like most if not all of the US Republican presidential aspirants) that global warming is a reality.

After a tour of the threatened Maldives, where all in the political spectrum feel the urgency of their ecological crisis, the film moves to the bureaucratic halls of the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009. We see how politics works to stall anything that needs immediate attention.

The circumstances that the Maldives face internationally ensure that The Island President is neither an infomercial nor a hagiographic campaign doc.  As the waters rise, Nasheed and his delegation appeal for their nation’s survival to the world community in international meetings that couldn’t be less cinematic. Shenk follows Nasheed through a faceless labyrinth of hotels and conference halls —  a vivid metaphor for the frustrations of a tiny country confronting major powers. Closed doors contrast with the openness that Nasheed fought to bring to his own government. “If you thought defending Poland or defending Vietnam was important,” he pleads to his colleagues, “defending the Maldives is important.”

In the meantime, tourism is up. “See paradise while you can,” could be the new ad slogan.

Mohamed Nasheed on waking up every day, faced with the task of saving his country from being submerged:  “Any Maldive leader has to have a vision on how they would save the country. The science of it has been so talked about and believed and understood – but then you have to have a vision.”

On convincing his citizens that climate change is a reality: “The science is just a confirmation of what is happening in the Maldives. There are people who don’t believe that the world is round. There are people who don’t believe that a man landed on the moon. There can be skepticism on anything, but what is happening to the Maldives is very obvious. So, please, give us another scientific rational for what is happening to the Maldives – if not, it is from climate change.”

On the notion that energy sources have not been exhausted: “We change technology not because we have exhausted the raw material for a certain technology,” he said. “We didn’t come out of the Stone Age because we ran out of stones. There’s still a fair amount of them around. You switch, you change, because there’s nothing more that you can milk out of it. There’s a really amazing line in the Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie says, ‘To be born again, first you have to die.’”

Write us your thoughts about this post. Play nice.