In Jon Shenk’s The Island President, Mohamed Nasheed lights up a cigarette. The observation that he may be the only world leader with a nicotine addiction turns out to be hugely representative of a much bigger picture – his isolated position in the political world. Throughout the documentary, it becomes painfully clear that Nasheed is utterly alone. So much so, that at times, his desperate attempts to get through to the world’s resource-guzzling superpowers – China, USA, India – become frustrating to the point of tears. The heartrending and memorable line, “We continue to shout even though we know that you’re not really listening” still rings in the ear to this day. However, beyond the hopelessness, it is the president’s never-ending determination to save his homeland from total submersion that inspires the viewer to continue watching with at least a little hope.
Nasheed’s pleas are not as much based on scientific speculation, as they are on visible, day-by-day evidence — making the need for immediate action all the more urgent. While the Maldives – an island nation in the Indian Ocean – continues to erode and sink, the viewer follows the efforts of a remarkably likeable president, siding with him and rooting for him alongside his personal life and his political endeavours. The documentary covers the build-up towards the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, and amid Nasheed’s tireless efforts against global warming and stubborn refusal to compromise or “negotiate”, the picture of a truly heroic figure is born. The president’s life has been eventful to say the least — the eighteen months he spent in solitary confinement, his significant part in the ousting of former leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s dictatorship and his democratically elected success (a first within the Maldives).
Behind the level-headedness and optimism of Nasheed, a subtle pessimism runs throughout the film – Jon Shenk does not fall into the trap of rejoicing and lifting the mood when a flicker of hope is found in the struggle. He prefers to let it be, exposing the true hopelessness of a nation without a voice. From the beginning the viewer is aware of the impossibility of the situation, and instead, the film becomes a celebration of one man’s persistence. This is a documentary held together by a remarkable refusal to give up.
While the president handles the situation with outstanding humour – at one point he jokes that the Indians and Chinese “like cutting ribbons, but we must give them green ribbon cutting opportunities” — his interior is evidently hard as nails. Shenk pieces together the picture of an unrelenting revolutionary. Nasheed’s furious determination undoubtedly stems from many years of opposition, facing both confinement and torture for founding a critical, anti-government newspaper within the Maldives. Throughout the doc, he is witnessed battling through what feels like an incommunicable ocean of indifference. Director, Jon Shenk, climaxes his film with the almost hopeful agreement in Copenhagen – though one can only question what good can come out of it all.
This is a very well-crafted documentary. The Island President becomes the portrait of an island’s history, before evolving into the exceptional portrait of Mohamed Nasheed himself. This is a film well worth watching, and will in time, I hope, gain its recognition as a highly valuable piece of cinema.