Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Island President

“The Island President,” the new documentary from director Jon Shenk (“Lost Boys of Sudan”), features Mohamed Nasheed, the charismatic president of Maldives, a nation comprised of approximately 1,200 low-lying islands (the average ground level is just 4’3” about sea level) in the Indian Ocean. Maldives has the lowest natural highest point in the world (7’10...”), and even a small rise in the water level threatens to inundate its makeshift seawalls and wipe out its population.

The film follows Nasheed and his small traveling contingent to speeches at the U.N. and Parliament, where Nasheed pleads his country’s case for binding, measurable commitments by China and India and leading Western producers of carbon dioxide to reduce their emissions to 350 parts per million. We’re invited behind the scenes to watch Nasheed do the hard work of consensus-building at the Association of Small Island States. All these lead-up events culminate in the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where over three mostly sleepless days and nights Nasheed works to procure a meaningful written agreement (an outcome very much in doubt to the final wee hours), armed, as he well knows, only with the moral high ground.

Shenk beautifully weaves the various strands of his story. He gives us a fascinating look at life in the Maldives, and what it means on a quotidian level to be president of a country that tourists know only as an exquisite and insouciant island paradise (admittedly, some of the seascapes are so comically beautiful you’d swear they had to be computerized). His hero boasts a compelling, almost Mandelaesque biography, rising from political imprisonment to executive office; he spent 18 months in solitary confinement in a 5’x3’ cell, and describes “taking every second as it comes,” explaining how “you can plan your day out in your mind, walking a few steps thousands of times.” Nasheed is a master of the symbolic PR gesture - pledging to make his country the world’s first to achieve carbon neutrality and later staging an underwater cabinet meeting - and an adroit rhetorician. (“What’s Plan B for Maldives,” a TV interviewer asks, “if you don’t get the agreement?” “Well,” he replies, “we’ll all die.”)

The most gripping material in the film is the back-room stuff at Copenhagen, where Nasheed’s relentless assiduousness and resilience allows him to navigate precarious diplomatic channels and produce a concrete document that, while not nearly what he’d hoped for, may represent a tangible first step toward international environmental responsibility. (He’s also resolutely pragmatic, even against the wishes of some of his advisors.) Throughout, Shenk avoids the preaching-to-the-choir smugness and proselytizing stridency that would have derailed the film in many other hands.

In a sad coda, Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint just two months ago, in a coup staged by loyalists of the dictatorial former regime. The 2009 memorandum of understanding remains Nasheed’s crowning achievement, and “The Island President” is Shenk’s; it’s the best film so far this year. As is so often the case with great documentaries, it’s the humorous moments that best humanize Nasheed. “Who cooked this fish?” he asks one night as he and his wife sit down to dinner. “Please, get them a recipe from my island – even if you have to call my mother.” And I’ll never forget the image of Nasheed and his foreign minister, sitting anonymously at a sports bar in New York, watching a Jets game and tucking into a cheeseburger –a place where nobody knew his name.

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