The Toronto International Film Festival last year produced an unlikely star: a quiet, slight-of-stature leader of a tiny country few attendees might have been able to locate on a globe, much less care about.
But at the world premiere of the documentary “The Island President,” Mohamed Nasheed — the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, an archipelago of tiny islands about 200 miles southwest of India — was greeted with rapturous ovations. The film, which chronicles his first year in office, centered mostly on Nasheed’s efforts to combat climate change, which if it continues on current trajectories could swamp his country of nearly 400,000 people.
The day after the debut, Nasheed — whose combination of forthrightness and idealism gives “The Island President” its momentum and moral ballast — was asked whether he was in danger of becoming cynical in the wake of newfound movie fame.
“No, no, no,” he said in his lilting, British-accented English. “I’m not cynical about anything. I trust humanity, and I think we have an amazing capacity to do good. . . . No one’s waking up to do bad. We all wake up and hope we’re going to do some good.”
Six months later, Nasheed had resigned his office after what he described as a coup and was visiting New York and Washington in a desperate charm offensive, promoting “The Island President” and telling anyone who would listen about the threats to the fragile democracy he helped introduce to the majority-Muslim Maldives. For Nasheed, 44, the two agendas — global warming and democracy — go hand in hand.
“I’ve been saying that you have to have a planet to have a democracy,” he said moments before being interviewed by Andrea Mitchell at the MSNBC studios in Tenleytown. “And you have to have democracy to have a planet. It goes both ways.”
When Nasheed was elected president in 2008, he arrived as something of a harbinger of the Arab Spring. Born in the capital city of Male, he attended college in Liverpool before returning to found a political magazine that was critical of longtime Maldives leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Throughout the 1990s, Nasheed was arrested several times, enduring torture and solitary confinement, and while in exile in Sri Lanka he co-founded the Maldivian Democratic Party. He came back to the Maldives to continue building support for democratic institutions and was elected in 2008.
“The Island President” chronicles those events, as well as the most famous episodes during Nasheed’s first year in office: a cabinet meeting he held underwater (in full scuba gear) to illustrate the effects unchecked global warming would have on the Maldives; his appearance before the United Nations, when he made an emotional appeal to world leaders to save his country and all low-lying nations from extinction; and his attendance at the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, where he can be seen maneuvering among the U.S., Chinese and Indian delegations in an effort to get an agreement to cap carbon emissions.
If Nasheed’s mission doesn’t end with unqualified success in Copenhagen, what emerges is still an impressive portrait of a charismatic, compelling leader punching far above his weight and managing to land a few blows. While he was in office, Nasheed learned the art of leveraging the very thing that puts him at a disadvantage: the Maldives’ tiny size. His country may be on the geographic low ground, but he has a clear claim on the moral high ground.
“We’re just so small,” he said in Toronto, his voice rising to a mouselike squeal. “You can’t bully [us.] It’s not right to bully. And we’re not angry. Whatever happens, even if we all die, we should not be angry with the people who murdered us. We can’t run climate change campaigns fueled by anger. I can’t tell the people [of the Maldives] that there are other countries trying to murder you. They’re trying to do good by their people according to their understanding. We just have to try to find an amicable position and keep talking.”
Nasheed has always felt — if not wholly supported — at least understood by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama. (When they first met, in New York during the U.N. summit, he asked the president for advice on a good jazz club. The president sent Nasheed and his team to the Jazz Standard in the Flatiron District.)
So he was shocked when, shortly after he left office in February under what he described as the threat of violence, the United States at first expressed support for the new government. (Nasheed’s vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, assumed the presidency, with Gayoom’s former cohorts taking several positions throughout the administration.) After backtracking from that position, they then balked at backing early elections, which Nasheed has been calling for as a way to reinstitute democracy and legitimacy.
“I’m unable to understand this,” Nasheed said after his appearance at MSNBC. He had jumped into a waiting van and was headed to the State Department, where he was scheduled to meet with Wendy Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs.
“I’ll be asking them how they may be able to see that there are elections in the Maldives,” he said of Sherman and her team. “I want to understand why they think it’s not the thing to do. . . . It’s also difficult for us to understand why they can’t see what happened in the Maldives as a coup. It must have something to do with statecraft.”
Although the meeting at the State Department was not open to the press, Nasheed reported afterward that it had produced results. He said Sherman assured him that the United States would support elections and would help look into the circumstances of his removal from office. The State Department later announced it would work with USAID to help get elections in place as early as July and aid in investigating the circumstances of Nasheed’s departure from office.
Before catching a train to New York, where he was scheduled to joust with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” Nasheed noted that he was again racing the clock. In “The Island President,” it was to save his country from drowning; this time, it’s to save his country from sinking into tyranny and religious extremism.
“In my mind, democracy is the biggest adaptation measure for climate change,” he said, philosophically. “You won’t be able to come up with proper policies and legislation if you don’t have democracy. You’ll always be spending your money and your time coming out with policies to protect a regime, not the planet.”
opens at Landmark’s E Street Cinema on Friday. It is also screening at Filmfest DC at 2 p.m. Sunday and 6:15 p.m. Monday at E Street Cinema.