An idealist's saga in paradise
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Apr. 20, 2012
When the documentary "The Island President" made its rapturously received world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, its star was a relative unknown. Mohamed Nasheed became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives in 2008, taking over the 1,200-island archipelago in the Indian Ocean after agitating for political reform for more than 20 years.
"The Island President" chronicles Nasheed's first year in office, much of which was devoted to combating climate change - which for the 400,000 people who have inhabited the low-lying islands for thousands of years is a life-and-death issue. But since Toronto, much has changed: The waves still lap ominously over the Maldives' pristine coral reefs and silky beaches, but Nasheed left office in February under conditions that he describes as a coup.
Nasheed's recent battles - which included a visit to Washington to plead with State Department officials to investigate his removal from office - make "The Island President" all the more timely and no less urgent.
Filmmaker Jon Shenk ("The Lost Boys of Sudan") expertly weaves Nasheed's extraordinary personal story together with the Maldives' breathtaking natural beauty and a Capra-esque tale of dogged idealism and political courage to create wonderfully vivid cinematic portraiture.
"The Island President" is bursting with compelling, and sometimes painful, contradictions: The film captures the striking tropical terrain that draws well-heeled tourists to the Maldives every year, even while it shows viewers the 5-by-5-foot shed in which Nasheed was imprisoned on one of those same white-sand beaches.
Nasheed, who assumed office at 41, has the slight stature and high-pitched voice of the schoolboy in Sri Lanka and England that he once was. But when he's brokering a carbon emission agreement at the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, he evinces a sophisticated understanding of how to leverage moral suasion. (When Nasheed slips out of the convention hall for a cigarette, you can't help wondering what might have ensued if a then-still-puffing President Obama joined him.)
Nasheed winds up walking away with less than what he wanted in Copenhagen, but "The Island President" leaves viewers with the distinct impression that this is a world leader whose eye is firmly on the long game, even when he admits it's a game he might lose.
An unflappably gentle consensus-seeker, Nasheed isn't naive: "At least we'll die knowing we tried to do the right thing," he says resignedly at one point.
Those are just a few of the fascinating juxtapositions that animate this riveting, visually dazzling film. But all the beauty shots and stunts in the world (at one point Shenk films an underwater cabinet meeting held to illustrate the climate-change stakes) wouldn't make up for a poor subject.
The reason to see "The Island President" is to meet Nasheed himself - charismatic, brilliant, visionary and now facing serious backlash in his own country. You might walk into the theater not knowing where or what the Maldives are, but you'll walk out caring more than you ever thought you would.
Contains thematic elements, some violent content and smoking.