‘The Island President’: That sinking feeling

March 29, 2012


Recent events in the Maldives Islands – specifically, a coup that toppled democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed by military loyal to his tyrannical predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – give the documentary “The Island President” both an urgency and a poignancy.

The film by Jon Shenk chronicles Nasheed’s attempts at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit to convince the international community to modify its approach to climate change. His nation’s survival, he argued, was at stake, in the most literal sense.

“The Island President” examines the life of Nasheed and his efforts to, first, help bring democracy to a country that had been a brutal dictatorship for 30 years, and then to try to both revive the country’s economic fortunes and prevent it from being literally washed off the map.

The Maldives is a country made up of a string of more than 1,000 islands in the Indian Ocean (about 200 of which are inhabited). None of them rises more than 20 feet above sea level. So the projected effects of climate change – with rising oceans due to melting polar ice caps – spells disaster for the tiny island nation, which already has to battle erosion to the encroaching seas.

Nasheed’s predecessor had no interest in the topic; when Nasheed won election and ousted him from office in 2008, he made it his primary focus (along with reestablishing the economy of a poor nation riddled with corruption and reliant on tourism). He has become one of the world’s most eloquent speakers on the subject and one of its most ingenious: At one point, he held a photo-op cabinet meeting in which he and his various cabinet secretaries wore scuba gear and met underwater.

Swaying the rest of the world – particularly massive polluters such as India, China and, of course, the United States – is more of a challenge. So the camera follows him to Copenhagen, where he runs into a wall of industrialized resistance to his desperate plea to consider restrictions on acceptable levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Science and economics are at work in this film but, really, it’s the portrait of Nasheed – who spent time in prison and was tortured by henchmen of his predecessor as he fought for democracy – that is the center of this story. He’s a determined guy with a winning smile and a canny sense of how to play the politics of David vs. Goliath.

“The Island President” may already be too late, in terms of the changes it hopes to effect. But Nasheed remains a courageous and inspiring figure, particularly now that he’s been forced from office by stand-ins for the kind of forces he has been trying to combat.

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