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A Leader’s Struggle to Save his People from Turning Into Climate Refugees

Film Review: The Island President

Watching a film about a leader’s efforts to save his country less than a month after he’s been deposed from power a can be a little depressing. But even without that specific context, there’s much that’s both compelling and poignant about The Island President, a feature-length portrait of Modhamed Nasheed, former president of Maldives and inadvertent environmental activist, who was forced to give up office after three years in a February 7 coup d’etat.

Photo by Chiara Goia

An archipelago of 1,200 tiny, breathtakingly beautiful islands in the middle of the azure Indian Ocean, the Maldives is one of the nations most vulnerable to climate change. Most of the nation’s islands are just about 1.5 meters above sea level. None of them have hills. The highest point in the nation stands at 2.4 meters. Climate scientists predict that if nothing is done to mitigate climate change the islands will eventually sink under rising waters.

Back in 2009, filmmaker Jon Shenk, whose past works include Blame Somebody Else and Lost Boys of Sudan, followed Nasheed through his first year in office as the then new president learned to deal with the combined challenges of establishing democracy in the island state that had lived through three decades of dictatorship and saving it from the peril of rising sea waters.

Shenk and his crew were given unprecedented access to Nasheed. They got to film everything from family dinners to the president’s strategy meetings with his top aides and ministers to his conversations with other world leaders. The result is a beautifully shot and edited film that presents a candid and rather gallant portrait of the so-called “underdog” leader.

Using a mix of original and archival footage the documentary traces the trajectory of Nasheed’s career — starting with his 20-year pro-democracy movement against the brutal regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, during which he endured multiple arrests, torture and 18 months in solitary confinement, and culminating with him more or less of saving the day at the 2009 United Nations climate change negotiations in Copenhagen (COP15).

The film’s montage of Nasheed’s seemingly endless rounds of meetings with world leaders and his passionate speeches at global summits, press meets and interviews not only offer a rare insider’s look at the political deal-making that goes on in the global arena, it also does a great job of underscoring just how frustrating international climate negotiations have been so far. Especially for, as Nasheed describes, “a bunch of small islands with no clout or anything.”

One can’t help but be charmed by this charismatic and media savvy leader who’s willing to go any length to bring attention to his country’s plight, including holding the now-famous underwater cabinet meeting, and offering sound bites that lead to headlines like “Global Warming is Like Nazi Invasion, Says Island Leader.” Or telling it as it is at an United Nations summit attended by Obama: “We continue to shout … even though we know deep down that you aren’t really listening.” Or when totally exasperated at the deadlocked talks at COP15 he tells his entourage in a mix of his native Dhivehi and English: “I’m really going to loose it if these bureaucrats keep bickering endlessly about the text… What the hell… the whole world is being destroyed and we keep going on about this conference of the conference of, you know?”

Nasheed’s primary goal through all this is to get world leaders agree to cap global emissions at 350 parts per million — a figure that many scientists and climate experts say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. He believes reduced emissions combined with well-thought adaptation strategies can save his low-lying nation. And for that he needs to get big emitters like India, China, Brazil and the US to agree to bigger emissions cuts.

Sadly for Nasheed — and indeed the world — charm, media savvy, and good intentions can only move things so far in the world of politics. Though he does manage to help broker some kind an international agreement at Copenhagen in the eleventh hour — which the film notes is “the first time in history that China, India, and the United States agreed to reduce carbon emissions” — it was nowhere close to the commitment we require to save Maldives or life on Earth as we know it. Nor have we managed to reach anything close to a reasonable global emissions reduction commitment in the years that have followed.

“It is tiring. It is exhausting. But you go on and on,” Nasheed says about his efforts to bring about an emissions deal at one point in the film. And that, I think, is the core message of The Island President .

The documentary, that has been doing the festival rounds since late last year, kicked off the SF Green Film Festival on Thursday. It will open in New York theaters on March 28 and in Bay Area theaters on March 30.

A previous version of this blog mentioned the 2009 documentary Smile Pinki as one of John Shenk's "previous works". We'd like to clarify that Shenk was director of photography, not the director, of that film.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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Thank you, Eric. Excellent nose for a story. The comparison to the Chiron srgneis to Pisces (corresponding to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) and the Uranus srgneis to Aries (corresponding to the Sendai earthquake and its consequences) is very well taken in that there is going to be a long, fishy tail to what is going on in the Maldives, revelaling more and more as time goes on and the leakage continues.For example, has anybody noticed how most of the mainstream media is either ignoring or burying or minimizing the situation in the Maldives? Is it on the front page of your local newspaper? Is it among the headlines in your Yay-who Newz? No! That is not an accident. It is relevant to you, it does mean something in your life, and that is precisely the reason you are receiving so little information. Ask yourself, who could possibly be restricting that information?

By Takeuchi on Mon, March 19, 2012 at 5:11 am

Too many so-called leaders are eganging in too much happy talk, posing before too many cameras, and deceiving many too many people. Nero is reported to have behaved similarly by putting on a show: fiddlin’ while Rome burned. Leaders in our time have adopted the ruinous strategy of Nero.

By Locksley on Sun, March 18, 2012 at 7:18 pm

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