Little Big Man

Kenneth Crab Mar 30, 2012

The Island President
Directed by Jon Shenk, Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2012


The release of The Island President, Jon Shenk’s documentary profile of Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, highlights one of the key David-versus-Goliath narratives in recent eco-politics. As president of the Maldives, a stretch of 2,000 tiny islands in the middle of the Indian ocean that constitute the lowest-lying nation on earth and, in his words, “a crossover between paradise and paradise,” Nasheed had become the most vocal and inspirational advocate for the containment of global warming since his election in 2008. Then, in a sad turn of events, a coup d’état forced him out of office on Feb. 7 of this year.

Until Nasheed’s election, the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had brutally suppressed freedom of expression and assembly since 1978. Educated in England, Nasheed returned home in 1989 and became a leader in the resistance movement against Gayoom’s pervasive corruption and human rights abuses. He was arrested 12 times, tortured twice and kept in solitary confinement for 18 months. Upon his release, he went into exile for fear of death. The devastation caused by a tsunami in 2004 ironically led to a reversal of fortune for the country when the international community

demanded political reform as a condition for much-needed aid. Nasheed returned, and heading the Maldivian Democratic Party, he beat Gayoom in the 2008 presidential elections.

Most of the film traces Nasheed mobilizing his cabinet and sensitizing the world at large to the climate change that, because of dramatically rising oceans, is jeopardizing the future of all 39 members of the Alliance of Small Island States. (Wider-ranging repercussions follow; eroding shorelines and contaminated fresh-water supplies are two disastrous consequences of the encroaching waves.) As the president and his team work up to the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, the viewer sympathizes with his frustration with the political negotiations. The atmospheric CO2 level of 350 parts per million necessary to keep the sea water from warming further and eventually washing over islands already seems a utopian number. Preemptive strategies give way to means of adaptation. Nasheed’s hopes for the Copenhagen agreement devolve from a document that could potentially save the planet to one that would provide the Maldives with funding to resist the fate of Atlantis.

The Island President is shot like a news special and charts a rather perfunctory course between Nasheed’s individual commitment and public office. Yet, his appeal sufficiently makes up for any lack of imaginative conception on Shenk’s part. Nasheed turned his country’s plight into a role of responsibility for mounting a campaign that makes the fight against climate change a tangible—if not sexy—project, with himself as the poster boy. Irrepressibly jovial and charming, the diminutive president appears driven by a modest yet visionary determination. This is epitomized when, in a publicity stunt that is at once jocular and eerie, he invites news media to an underwater cabinet meeting. While the Maldives are striving to be the first carbon-neutral nation wholly powered by renewable energy, the overall debate around global warming is shifting from prevention to damage control.

From Kyoto to Copenhagen to Durban last December, lofty statements of shared concern about the greenhouse effect kept trumping the implementation of binding measures to limit carbon emissions. In “Washed Away,” the cover story of this month’s ABA Journal, Kristin Choo raises the grim and unprecedented legal question of how island nations will be able “to preserve their statehood, claims to resources and national identity when they have no actual physical homeland.” As for Nasheed, whose current situation remains precarious, hopefully The Island President will help generate support and intervention to reinstate him, so he can keep the Maldives from becoming “a country of environmental refugees” and set an example for the rest of us in the process.

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