The Island President

Eco-warrior grins? - A mostly optimistic doc, but not in our unwillingness to make sacrifices to protect the weak

The Island President


Woe is the world of the stubborn pragmatist. Mohamed Nasheed is the now-former president of the Maldives (he was recently forced to leave office at gunpoint by the military). In 2008, the grassroots activist and journalist was his country's first democratically elected leader, ousting a corrupt dictator and championing the environmental concerns of an archipelago nation that includes roughly 1,200 islands, about 200 of which are inhabited. 

The Maldives are the lowest land masses on the planet, barely three-and-a-half-feet above sea level, which makes them incredibly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Every year, more and more of the country is swallowed up by the Indian Ocean (a point Jon Shenk's documentary makes dramatically clear with aerial shots of its slowly drowning and densely populated capital, Malé). As a result, the English-educated Nasheed saw it as his mission to not only formulate a 10-year plan to make his country carbon-neutral but, more importantly, to convince the rest of the world's leaders to make serious efforts to curb global warming.

As cynics are quick to say, good luck with that. 

Unsurprisingly, the short-term economic interests of geopolitical giants like China, India and the United States trump the survival concerns of some tiny island in the middle of nowhere. (And one that's Sunni Muslim to boot.) Yet, as depicted in The Island President, Nasheed remains unbowed, a smiling and gracious eco-warrior who takes his case to the Copenhagen Climate Summit and masters the art of stunt messaging and graceful persuasion. Shenk takes us backstage at these events, offering a candid and ultimately frustrating look at political inaction, polarization and rampant self-interest. The movie will really test your faith that governments, especially international governments, are capable of doing what's right in the face of corporate profits.

But amid the depressingly bureaucratic maneuverings of indifferent Chinese officials, toothless commitments by the United States, and frequent miscommunications and policy derailments, it's always clear that Nasheed's cause isn't just touchy-feely tree-hugging — it's a matter of human rights. He is literally fighting for the future survival of his homeland. 

Shenk follows Nasheed around the world as he wheels and deals, tirelessly trying to convince disingenuous make-nice cabinet members to address the catastrophic implications of ever-growing greenhouse gases. His approach is dogged and convincing, even in the face of compromises. And always, the man remains defiantly optimistic that change can come, that those in power will make the right decisions — perhaps because to believe otherwise would cause too much despair.

As a doc, The Island President tries to present a complete portrait of Nasheed but stumbles. It's clear that Shenk and his crew are enamored of this charismatic man, and it's understandable why. But, as filmmakers, they let his personality and the virtues of his charge replace comprehensive reportage. Too little time is spent on the ground in the Maldives. The environmental effects of the rising sea level are only given cursory firsthand coverage, and the political situation — past and present — is mostly relegated to poorly chosen YouTube footage and a talking-head recap of his election efforts. More context would seem necessary given the coup d'etat that unseated Nasheed; we deserve a better understanding of the country he is fighting for. 

That said, the Radiohead soundtrack is surprisingly effective.

As an insight into the cynical nature of world politics, The Island President is wonky but fascinating stuff. As a heartfelt portrait of a man who stubbornly advocates for the powerless, it's engaging and oddly empowering. But as a testament to mankind's willingness to change, to make sacrifices in order to protect the weak, it's deeply dispiriting. The result is a message of doom and gloom delivered by a cheerfully determined optimist.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday-Saturday, April 27-28 and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 29.

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