Politician and activist Mohamed Nasheed saw firsthand how the citizens of his island nation of Maldives were galvanized to demand democracy when the torture of a political prisoner made national news. In the wake of that scandal, Nasheed helped found the Maldivian Democratic Party, then went into exile to apply pressure internationally to his country’s dictatorial president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In 2008, Nasheed was elected as the new president of Maldives, but before his administration could begin work on promised democratic reforms, it had to deal with a more pressing economic crisis. Changing weather patterns and rising tides have been reducing the fish in the local waters and shrinking the coastline, affecting two of the nation’s biggest industries. So Nasheed, who has a history of working with international partners and of using shocking images to change minds, decided to explain Maldives’ plight to the world, to make the case for immediate action.
Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President spends its first half hour detailing Nasheed’s rise to prominence, establishing exactly how smart and determined this man is. The problem with this approach is that when Shenk then changes gears and turns The Island President into a fly-on-the-wall doc about Nasheed’s presentation at the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the movie stalls a bit. The relationship between Maldives and the international community is still in flux, as is the situation with Nasheed and his countrymen. (Nasheed was pressured into resigning from office in 2012, a little over a year after the events depicted in this film.) And no matter how many Radiohead snippets Shenk loads onto the soundtrack, he can’t distract from the sense that The Island President may be premature, and that he might’ve done better to wait until he could treat this phase of Nasheed’s story with the energy and conclusiveness he brings to its beginning.
Nevertheless, the main reason to make this movie now is for the same reason Nasheed risked his presidency: The problem is urgent. The disappearing Maldives islands have become a model for what might happen to other low-lying nations as the waters rise around the world. Because of the crisis, the islands have instituted policies aimed at becoming carbon-neutral—policies that larger, more prosperous countries refuse to consider, lest they lose their economic edge. What’s fascinating and frustrating about The Island President is how it reveals international politics to be even more polarized and mired in bureaucracy than local politics. Even getting a commitment to consider a study to move toward change requires days of hair-splitting and scapegoating, which makes the structure of this documentary especially sad. The first half hour shows a dynamic politician who gets things done; the last hour shows him ground to dust by diplomats.