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Movies  |  Reviews

The Island President

March 28, 2012  |  11:20pm
<i>The Island President</i>

For the tiny island country of Maldives and its President Mohamed Nasheed, global warming isn’t an abstract concept but a matter of life and death. The Indian Ocean nation peaks at an elevation of 2.5 meters above sea level, and with 80 percent of its land at less than one meter, a rise of three meters in sea level would submerge its 1,200 islands enough to make them uninhabitable—a fate some scientists believe is possible as early as this century. After leading a 20-year pro-democracy movement to wrest control of Maldives from brutal dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, during which time he survived 12 arrests and two bouts of torture, Nasheed took control of the country only to face its biggest challenge yet: its very survival.

With unprecedented access, documentarian Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan) captures the ambitious first year of Nasheed’s presidency, revisiting his ascent to power via social uprising by interviewing those who were there—including his pessimistic wife Laila Ali and his most trusted advisors—and following the inner workings of his presidency, including sitting in on policy and strategy meetings. The film begins and culminates with the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, an environmental confab that was widely deemed a failure but marked the first time China, India and the United States agreed to reduce carbon emissions. In Shenk’s and editor Pedro Kos’ hands, these developments play like a real-life natural-disaster movie.

Throughout, the 41-year-old Nasheed comes off as a rock star, treading into the surf to shoot a promotional video, holding a cabinet meeting underwater and writing notes on his hand while he talks to the Australian prime minister from one of Maldives’ pristine beaches—all to a Radiohead soundtrack. He’s dramatic and direct, pledging that his country will go carbon neutral within a decade and declaring, “It won’t be any good to have democracy if there isn’t a country. … We can’t not talk about our existence.”

By the time he jets into Copenhagen, Nasheed is greeted by cheering crowds of international protestors but soon finds it necessary to compromise his position, a turn of events that disappoints members of his staff and, honestly, viewers. But by doing so, and delivering a galvanizing speech the film portrays as turning the tide of the conference vote, he salvages the debate for another day.

Unfortunately, Nasheed’s presidency didn’t last nearly long enough for him to achieve all that he set out to, as he stepped down last month in what he has described as a forced resignation under threat of violence in a coup d’etat—none of which is depicted in the film. Still, those who learn of his and his country’s plight through Shenk’s smartly crafted film can’t help but sit up and pay attention to the course of his career, the fate of Maldives and the threat of global warming.

Director: Jon Shenk
Starring: Mohamed Nasheed
Release Date: Apr. 6, 2012

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