“The Maldives is just 1.5 meters above sea level. It’s not something in the future, it’s something we are facing right now.” As presented by Mohamed Nasheed, the president of Maldives, that “it” would be the catastrophic effects of climate change. His island will soon be under water.
Even beyond his tiny nation’s own fate, the former political prisoner sees this as a global issue, and has made it his mission to make it visible to the rest of the world. The Island President is part of that effort. Screening 8 November at DOC NYC, Jon Shenk’s film follows Nasheed’s travels to the UN and to the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009. In each appearance, he’s welcomed warmly or even cheered by eco activists, charismatic and convincing… at least until he runs up against representatives from India, who resent the wealthy West (the US and Europe) trying to curb their economic ascendance via carbon restrictions. “Many people in many governments just wouldn’t believe the science,” Nasheed tells a colleague, “India, China, and Brazil, they’re not believing it.”
The science becomes one element in Nasheed’s performance, as he labors to persuade other nations that the Maldives are not alone. The film emphasizes not only Nasheed’s recent stardom on the world stage, but also his own history, which includes other struggles, like 20 years of fighting for democracy in the Maldives. Imprisoned by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s regime, Nasheed spent some 18 months in solitary confinement, inside a five-by-five corrugated metal cell, an ordeal the film illustrates brilliantly, by showing such a structure from a variety of angles, each more intimidating than the one before, set against time-lapsed clouds and a bright blue sky. “You can still have a schedule for the day, even if you can’t move,” Nasheed narrates. “You can go for a walk in your mind, you could be walking. If you can walk, if you’re not chained, you can take four or five steps in the cell, but you do it a million times. You take each moment as it comes.”
As Nasheed’s wife Laila Ali helps to make clear the difficulty of these long months and years, he actually doesn’t detail what happened. After noting that he was “arrested 12 times and tortured twice,” he moves on to how his work took a turn in 2003, following Maumoon Abdul Gayroom’s sixth inauguration and the murder of another prisoner. When the young man’s mother decided to make his beaten body public before his burial, public resistance to the odious Maumoon increased; though Nasheed, in fear for his own life, went into exile, he and his fellows continued the fight for freedom, until at last he returned to the Maldives to ran for president, as the candidate for the Maldivian Democratic Party, in 2006. His arrival is a sensation, with cameras capturing the cheering throngs thrilled to see or touch him.
These images are echoed by those showing Nasheed arriving in New York City or Copenhagen, where he’s greeted as an “eco rock star”. Nasheed comprehends the value of a good campaign (even when the message seems right and popular, “You still have to reach out to people,” he observes). As president of this newly democratic Sunni Muslim country, the 41-year-old Nasheed assembles a PR team to work in concert with scientists and environmental experts, all working to craft a movement that will make sense to citizens and so gain their support, as well as make deals with international politicians.
As the film shifts into this next stage in Nasheed’s career, it underscores not only his own vision and the design of the Maldivian campaign, but also how he looks compared to other nations’ representatives. With all the distractions and annoyances of the US news cycles, it’s almost refreshing to see a politician concerned with a meaningful crisis… except that this crisis is actually frightening, not at all refreshing.
Nasheed and his team devise a series of talking points and some impressive visuals. He holds a cabinet meeting underwater (everyone in wetsuits and seated around a table, bubbles rising from their mouthpieces), and makes a commitment that the Maldives will be carbon neutral in a decade. He aligns his international campaign with the 350 movement, speaks again and again with the press as well as his political counterparts. In each encounter, he presses the case: the very world is at stake.
Ever on the go, Nasheed is shot from behind repeatedly, the camera trotting along to keep up on sidewalks or narrow hotel hallways, or perched across the room to catch him downing a sandwich at a Danish bistro, low and handheld as he watches football on TV in a bar in Manhattan. The film works with Nasheed toward his end, yet hardly needs to dramatize his cause. “There is impending disaster,” he says, “Everyone knows that now.” It’s a matter of convincing all parties to invest in the idea of saving the world, to set aside their resentment of the bullies who have for so long run the show. Nasheed’s show might yet make a difference.