In the face of rising sea levels, the Maldive Islands are the Alamo, and environmental crusader Mohamed Nasheed is their Davy Crockett. Boasting astonishing access, director Jon Shenk’s “The Island President” documents a brave battle against overwhelming odds. If the endangered archipelago can just keep its head above water long enough to be heard, the charismatic leader hopes to save the lowest country on earth. Should he fail, this inspiring big-issue docu virtually ensures “Remember the Maldives!” will become a rallying cry in the fight against global warming. Pic demands a distrib that views its rewards in more than financial terms.
“Lost Boys of Sudan” director Shenk has little patience for naysayers who claim that global warming is a hoax. Tell that to the residents of the Maldives — a “cross between paradise and paradise” consisting of nearly 2,000 tiny islands in the Indian Ocean, none more than eight feet above sea level. According to scientific estimates, if carbon emissions continue at the levels they are today, the Maldives will disappear within a decade. But those levels aren’t steady; they’re climbing, thanks to industrial nations like India and China that rely heavily on coal.
But “The Island President” is hardly a PowerPoint presentation on the subject of environmental responsibility. That’s already been done well enough. Instead, Shenk’s doc tackles the message from a compelling human-interest angle — by focusing on the messenger.
In 2008, at the very moment such campaign buzz words as “hope,” “change” and “progress” were stirring voters in the U.S., Nasheed won the Maldives’ first truly democratic election by embodying those same ideals. Before that, as a brief history lesson helpfully explains, corrupt leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had run things his way for three decades, during which Nasheed was arrested 12 times and tortured twice for speaking out against the administration and attempting to form his own political party.
The 2004 tsunami changed all that, sweeping Nasheed into office. Once there, the infectiously optimistic, fiercely independent little man immediately realized that nearly all the nation’s most pressing issues traced back to climate change. The country’s beaches were literally being washed away, and expensive projects such as dikes and sea walls offered only temporary relief.
Shortly after the election, Shenk reached out to Nasheed about recording the against-all-odds crusade. What he got was nearly carte blanche to eavesdrop on everything from high-level strategy sessions to family dinners. Not since Barbet Schroeder’s “General Idi Amin Dada” has a film crew been allowed such candid access to a head of state, only here, Shenk was not required to submit the footage to his subject for approval — not that Nasheed had any reason to worry. Apart from several scenes of self-doubt (and the occasional shot of him chain-smoking), the doc presents a mostly heroic portrait of the underdog leader.
Though the central problem is far too daunting to be resolved in the span of such a film, Shenk finds a manageable arc in Nasheed’s preparations for his biggest international showdown, at 2009’s Copenhagen Climate Summit. His primary goal is to set a tough global emissions cap, at 350 parts per million. By way of example, he vows to make the Maldives carbon neutral within the decade, but what he really needs is for carbon hogs India, China, Brazil and the U.S. to change their ways.
Shenk accompanies Nasheed from one global pulpit to the next, recording impassioned testimony in front of the United Nations, U.K. Parliament and any press who will listen. From its privileged behind-the-scenes vantage, the doc demonstrates what a savvy PR artist Nasheed can be, pulling camera-ready stunts (like holding an underwater cabinet meeting) and recognizing when to go off-script (as when he compares the issue to Vietnam or Nazi Germany). The man knows how to grab headlines, and “President” does its part to serve up his most chilling sound bites — e.g. “It won’t be any good to have a democracy if we don’t have a country.”
Acting as his own cameraman, Shenk balances run-and-gun insider footage with stunning shots of a beautiful tourist retreat whose residents could soon become environmental refugees. Superb ambient-to-anthemic music from Radiohead and Stars of the Lid lends added resonance to the subject.