It’s tough being at the top. Just ask Mohammed Nasheed. After suffering years of imprisonment and torture due to his opposition of Maumun Abdul Gayoom’s dictatorial regime, the political activist finally succeeded by becoming the first democratically elected President of the Maldives in over thirty years. Upon assuming office Nasheed soon realised that he faced a much bigger challenge – if efforts weren’t made to alter current climate change the 1,192 islands upon which he governs would be entirely submerged within fifty years, and with it his entire nation.
John Shenk’s sagacious investigative documentary follows the first year of Nasheed’s tenure as he works towards putting forward a plan that the international community will agree upon at the Copenhagen summit in 2009. We follow Nasheed as he surmounts a campaign to raise awareness for his country’s predicament and win over the hearts and minds of people across the world to his cause. The films relies heavily on his shoulders but he has the charisma and force of personality that instantly mark him as a leader, though as he himself acknowledges, he is used to being the underdog. The film poses the question of how much difference one man can really make on the international stage.
Whilst climate change is the big issue at play here, surprisingly little of the film is spent detailing the scientific issues as to how the Maldives are specifically being affected. The movie instead offers more of an examination of the struggles of tiny developing countries to have their voices heard on the global stage, and the effects to which publicity and PR can be utilised to make a difference. The fact that Nasheed allowed Shenk to capture his day to day business is a publicity stunt in itself, and you are given the impression at all times Nasheed is aware of the importance of presentation and performance. Many scenes are spent with his director of communications and cabinet over how best they can convince the world of their plight. The world’s first underwater cabinet meeting with all members wearing diving suits is one, whilst telling the British government that climate change is as dangerous as Nazi Germany is another. The Maldives are prepared to grab the attention of the world any way they can.
As we see his delegation try to win over other countries at the United Nations, we reach a true understanding of the difficulties that nations face uniting together on the international stage. A post-colonial shadow hangs over the whole affair. Western nations are prepared to alter their destructive habits but it is the likes of China and India who refuse, stating that it is unfair that they should now be forced to limit their growth after centuries of imperialistic rule. With such a lack of understanding between nations it appears the chances we have of uniting on global issues seem very dire indeed.
Nasheed in the end achieves a pyrrhic victory as he manages to get an agreement between the other nations over reducing their carbon emissions, something that many observers at the time believed impossible. Unfortunately it is only a triumph of politics over policies and pragmatism over idealism. The agreement does not nearly go far enough in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and as a result it is with great sadness that I must admit the Maldives will probably disappear within my lifetime. The film’s credits roll across gorgeous aerial images of the islands to Radiohead’s ‘How to Disappear Completely’. A fitting choice for a closing song, as the documentary is most likely not only a protest film but a visual eulogy to a nation that will soon cease to be no more. The martyrdom of the Maldives will hopefully not be for nothing, as cinema’s ability to preserve the past will mean that future generations can watch The Island President and mutter to themselves, ‘Never again.’
Read our coverage of the film’s panel discussion at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (Curzon Soho) here.
By Alfred Joyner