Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President ran for two weeks this spring at Film Forum, an independent SoHo theater that caters to well-heeled, silver-haired denizens of the Upper West and East Sides and a smattering of bespectacled, tweed- and corduroy-clad artsy types who drift over from NYU and Brooklyn. At each screening, as the lights dimmed, these extremely educated residents of Manhattan Island (0 – 80 meters above sea level) and Long Island (0 – 67 meters above sea level) were asked to imagine themselves soaring over the Maldives, a country whose 1292 islands (0 – 2.5 meters above sea level) are scattered around an area the Indian Ocean 250 miles southwest of India.
The aerial shots of the Maldives are stunning — circles of tropical trees wreathed in white sand, surrounded by clear turquoise waters — and terrifying, for they also reveal the nation’s would-be islands, its ever-so-slightly submerged coral lagoons: a preview of the future that former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed fears his country faces. With 80% of its land area less than a meter above sea level, the Maldives is the lowest-lying country in the world. If current climate change predictions hold true, it could be entirely submerged by 2100.
As The Island President recounts, preventing the annihilation of his nation becomes a priority for Nasheed soon after he wins his office in the country’s first-ever democratic elections in 2008. (Previously, Nasheed was imprisoned and tortured for his protests against the 30-year dictatorial reign of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom; in the film, Nasheed’s boyish enthusiasm belies his traumatic history). The science is clear: the gorgeous islands, whose resort-crusted beaches are already suffering serious erosion due to rising sea levels, are doomed unless the planet miraculously stops getting warmer. But what is the president of a country of 350,000 — the smallest country in Asia, with a population comparable to that of New Orleans — to do about an issue that requires the cooperation of the world’s most powerful heads of state?
Nasheed sets out to answer this question, with Shenk’s cameramen close at his heels (and, charmingly, in his dining room, his government offices, his hotel bedrooms). The film builds up to the 2009 international Copenhagen climate negotiations, where Nasheed hopes the global community will forge an agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to a level that doesn’t threaten the existence of the Maldives and other low-lying regions around the world.
In interviews and action footage, Shenk and his crew trace the rise of Nasheed as a global climate spokesman, a voice for Maldivians and for all peoples whose lives stand to be devastated by human forces beyond their control. We see Nasheed’s underwater cabinet meeting, highly publicized by 350.org; we see a trip to India, where Nasheed is subjected to the tired argument that India has the right to develop with fossil fuels because the West had its chance to do so; we see a trip to New York, where Nasheed makes the case for green development before the United Nations. Finally, we see Nasheed at Copenhagen, where he isn’t quite important enough to be included in an unscheduled meeting of 30 heads of state, but does give a stirring speech pleading for his country’s future and outlining its plan to go carbon neutral by 2020 — not because the Maldives’ emissions have a serious impact on the global climate, but because its moral example might spur richer, higher-emitting countries to take action of their own.
We see, in other words, a lot of Nasheed’s global policy efforts, but little of his efforts to improve the daily lives of his people. In his New York Times review of The Island President, critic A. O. Scott notes that climate change remains “an abstraction” for many of the silver-haired and tweed-clad Westerners among us, but a matter of “lethal urgency” for Maldivians. It turns out, though, that inhabitants of Maldives’ capital city Malé aren’t so different from Manhattanites in their response to the threat of climate change. On-the-ground research from Eric Hirsch, who is studying the ethics of Maldives climate policies, has found that Malé residents are much more concerned with the immediate prospects for economic growth and individual well being than with the hazy prospect of climate change destroying their nation. Like many New Yorkers, Maldivians find scientists’ predictions mildly disturbing (much of lower Manhattan is, of course, in the climate change danger zone); but also like New Yorkers, whose thoughts return to work and play when they leave the theater, Maldivians have their livelihoods to worry about. Climate change might present a more direct threat to them, but right now its force is still silent, invisible, inconceivable.
Perhaps Nasheed’s prioritizing of climate change over economic growth, of the global over the local, of the long-term over the immediate, played a role in his sudden resignation in February, when forces loyal to the former dictator purportedly confronted him at gunpoint. This happened well after the close of The Island President.
In the movie, recalling the Maldives’ tumultuous political past, Nasheed’s wife Laila Ali remembers when her young husband, newly released from prison, decides to rejoin the democracy movement rather than keep himself safe for his family. Laila admits that she didn’t want him to go.
“I could have left him,” she says. “But I didn’t.”
As president of the Maldives, Nasheed faced a similar dynamic: stay home and address his people’s quotidian concerns, or confront their most ominous problem on a global scale. Nasheed chose the latter option, and it’s still unclear whether this decision caused his people to leave him. It is clear, though, that his ambitious plans for the country’s energy future have fizzled under the new regime, and that his strivings for a international climate consensus are on hold, with global carbon emissions still on the rise. Nasheed is currently living in exile, as he explains in a Daily Show interview. But he is only 44, full of energy, a veteran blaster of impediments; if there’s anything to hope for, it’s that he’ll soon think up new ways to save his country — and, by proxy, the world.
The Island President should be playing at every multiplex in the country, but is actually playing at the (extremely limited) venues listed here.