Tibita Kaneene

The Island President, a documentary that tells the story of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, arrives in theaters just a few weeks after a military coup forced him from office. 

Nasheed was elected president of the 1200-island Indian Ocean archipelago in its first ever multi-party presidential election in 2008, defeating Maumoom Gayoom, an autocrat who had ruled for thirty years. 

Director Jon Shenk and his crew were given a level of access to Nasheed’s official and unofficial life in 2008 and 2009 unprecedented for a sitting head of state. In fact, Nasheed himself made an unexpected appearance after the screening in NYC. The President explained that after criticizing his government for years about a lack of transparency, he would be a hypocrite not to allow maximum access to his administration. Shenk recounted how pleasantly surprised he was when Nasheed agreed to the level of access they had requested. 

Though it borders on hagiography at times and omits critical details, the film ultimately depicts Nasheed not as a hero, but accurately as a crusader and a facilitator with the ability to innovate and persuade others. 

When he took office, Nasheed realized almost immediately that rising sea levels threatened to completely submerge the Maldives, which has a maximum elevation of six feet above sea level, if current rates of climate change persisted. He pledged to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country within 10 years, by harnessing only solar and wind energy, a move that he said would be costless over 10 years. He then embarked on an international campaign which attempts to force world leaders to address the issue and is the primary focus of the film.  

Using interviews and archival footage, The Island President opens by detailing the two decades of rebellion and advocacy that propelled Nasheed into the presidency. Nasheed provides much of the voiceover, and despite the weight of the stories he unfolds and the challenging moments the film captures, remains amiable throughout. He smiles often, is a compelling storyteller, and his wit provided many laughs in the movie and during the Q&A. 

Soon after returning to the Maldives in 1990 after attending university in the UK, Nasheed and friends founded Sangu, a dissident political newspaper focused on human rights and corruption, at a time when criticism of the Gayoom regime was illegal. Within a few months, Sangu was banned, and Nasheed was imprisoned. 

Nasheed describes being held in solitary confinement for eighteen months, and being tortured with regular beatings. In order to pass the time, he would go on walks around his cell, or on imaginary walks on the beach when he was chained.  

Nasheed was arrested a total of 12 times, forcing him into self-exile and causing Amnesty International to name him a Prisoner of Conscience. In 2001, Nasheed and other dissidents attempted to register the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

The film then focuses on a turning point in the Maldivian democratic movement. The moment came in 2003 when Nasheed demanded an autopsy for a 19-year old that had died in prison. The determination that he had been tortured to death sparked riots. The violent suppression that resulted in 3 deaths and 17 injuries helped turn the nation against its leaders. Soon after that, the August 2004 tsunami wiped out 50% of the GDP overnight, exposed the ineptitude of the administration, and highlighted the urgency of climate change, all in one fell swoop. Foreign aid was conditioned on political reform, and the government recognized MDP in 2005 and held a multiparty election in 2008. 

The film leaves out the fact that Gayoom defeated Nasheed on the first ballot but failed to garner a fifty percent vote, causing a runoff election between the two. Recognizing that Gayoom would surely receive fifty percent of the vote without the other four candidates in the race, Gayoom formed a coalition with the other candidates resulting in the creation of the Islamic affairs ministry was a condition of the coalition agreement. 

When portraying Nasheed’s domestic governance, the filmmakers elect to show amusing publicity stunts such as underwater cabinet meetings and press conferences in knee-deep water rather than document the political upheavals that hamstrung Nasheed’s administration and ultimately led to the coup.

Within four months of his inauguration, Nasheed’s coalition had completely collapsed. Home Minister Gasim Ibrahim resigned after 20 days of service. Among other things, Ibrahim disagreed with Nasheed’s plan to decentralize the government and move to a more federalist system more amenable to the Maldives’ atomized geography. Hassan Saeed soon resigned as well as did the attorney general, finance minister, and even the replacement attorney general. 

Many of the coalition’s disagreements with the administration surrounded Nasheed’s secular policies like easing restrictions on pork and alcohol at tourist resorts and other deviations from Islamist orthodoxy. Other grievances included the failure to combat high inflation and a dollar shortage, and cuts to fishery subsidies. Again in 2010, 13 of 14 ministers resigned, provoking a constitutional crisis.  

During the historical section of the film, the visual style is standard for a documentary, if not a bit hokey, with long tracking shots of stock footage and occasionally dissonant musical choices. However, once Nasheed’s presidency begins and the crew is following him, the camera work and editing come alive, losing the stodgy documentary feel and acquiring a propulsive energy that is a better match for the Radiohead soundtrack and the urgency of the situation. 

In interviews and negotiations with world leaders, Nasheed justly casts climate change as a life or death issue for his country. While evacuation of the islands would save its inhabitants, such a scenario would likely be a death knell to Maldivian culture, language, and civilization already beset by global forces.

However, while arresting climate change is arguably in every nation’s long term interest, the actions needed to do so are often against the short term political interests of government leaders, who are opposed by powerful special interests within their own economic and political landscapes. The Maldivian economy is dominated by tourism, which accounts for 28% of GDP and 60% of foreign exchange receipts, and fisheries, which accounts for 15% of the country’s GDP and employs 30% of the country’s work force. Because both of these industries are being severely negatively affected by climate change today, Nasheed was in a unique position not shared by China, India, Brazil or the US, in which short-term and long term incentives are aligned, a rarity in climate change policy. 

Much of the drama in the film concerns Nasheed’s efforts to get those four nations to sign onto a substantive pact, particularly his efforts to get China and India to sign onto an agreement among the G77 developing nations. China, the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter, proves the most recalcitrant, not only opposing lower emissions but the very idea of international monitoring, which it argued was an affront to its sovereignty.

At the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in 2009, Nasheed’s tireless diplomatic efforts and clarity of message quickly make him one of 15 world leaders driving talks concerning 192 nations. He positions himself as an emissary between the holdouts and those who want to sign the deal, ensuring that negotiations continue. After Brazil and the US sign on to a deal, Nasheed shows willingness to compromise on keeping carbon dioxide levels to 350 parts per million (PPM) in an effort to convince China and India to sign on, leading to a thrilling climax.  

At the Q&A session at the Film Forum, Nasheed said that he is an optimist about the future of democracy in the Maldives and the prospects for real climate change, despite recent developments. The filmmakers seem to share this optimism, which will hopefully be validated by future events. 

Tibita Kaneene lives in New York City and works as a financial journalist.