The Island President Review

Film Still
  • The Island President film still
  • Released

    March 30, 2012
  • Directed By

    Jon Shenk


Sure it’s hagiographic, but this is environmentalist filmmaking at its best.

Back when global warming wasn’t much of a concern, John Donne wrote: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

They are words that Mohamed Nasheed, the former President of the Maldives and the subject of Jon Shenk’s political profile, seems to have taken to heart when he campaigned for a binding deal at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.

In a sweeping movement that prefaced the Arab Spring, the former political prisoner Nasheed was elected in the Maldives’ first free elections in 30 years. His opponent was Maumoon Gayoom, the aged kleptocrat of the Sunni Muslim state who is alleged to have misappropriated over $100 million in foreign aid after the 2004 tsunami.

There are also intimations that he appears to be pulling the strings behind the military coup that led to Nasheed’s eventual abdication.

Coming to office in 1998, Nasheed found himself in charge of the lowest lying country in the world; an archipelago of 1200 coral islands scattered across 400 miles of the Indian Ocean.

Shenk’s fly-on-the-wall study of environmentalism’s posterboy is a kind of In the Loop for the Copenhagen summit, where Nasheed battles to include the sainted 1.5 degrees cap on global warming from pre-industrial levels, saying: "If you allow even a two degrees rise, you are agreeing to kill us."

While he sounds a teeny bit like Yoda, Nasheed flourishes in this environment, proving himself a politician of shrewd conviction and an agile manipulator of the media, unafraid to use demagogic language, rub dignitaries up the wrong way or indulge in the kind of press gimmicks David Cameron would be proud of, including a cabinet meeting conducted underwater, TV crew in tow, before flying to Denmark.

There are some truly jaw-dropping moments, like when a Chinese junior lackey shuffles up to one of Nasheed’s cabinet and gets her to point out all the statesman in the room. Obama, Brown, Clinton, Wen Jiabao et al are only glimpsed as they are rushed from one super-economy meeting to another. The lesser-powered of the world’s countries flit, wait, argue and conspire in what seems to be the world’s biggest departure lounge.

With a rare score from Radiohead and scene after scene of gratifyingly intimate footage, Shenk manages to capture Nasheed’s potentially ruinous compromise on the 1.5 degrees mark – "You don’t want to sign a suicide pact," he is advised – before managing to pull together a loose, shaky coalition of the developing countries. A tainted deal was salvaged at the 11th hour.

This is a rare film in a saturated market of eco-catastrophe docs; it values the art and process of compromise, diplomacy and leadership by consent in the greatest political question we face.

Only when the argument becomes this calm, this nuanced, this careful, will we be able to work towards incremental and binding reform, and stop the Maldives from becoming the Atlantis of our age.

comments powered by Disqus