There is something belittling with the title “The Island President”. It emphasizes the lack of contiguity and the diminutiveness of the area where this leader governs, an isolated, tiny patch in the ocean bereft of any significance in the grander scheme of things. And this is something that the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, knows and have come to accept, that richer and more powerful countries see his solely as a tourist haven, in his words a “cross between paradise and paradise”. But now that his seemingly dispensable country is urgently experiencing the devastating effects of rising sea levels and climate change, he is forced to confront this environmental crisis and come up with solutions that need the cooperation and approval of the entire international community. His challenge is how to make them listen to the pleas of the president of these sinking little islands.
The Island President is a stirring documentary that focuses on the attempts of ex-president Nasheed (he has since been deposed from power) to save his nation from a preventable death. It takes us on a short tour of the Maldives’ recent history, its transition from a thirty-year dictatorship to a democracy headed by Nasheed, and the environmental activism that has defined his presidency. The movie is structured around the impending Copenhagen summit and Nassem’s race to gather enough votes to pass a resolution curtailing carbon emissions.
Expectedly, this turns out to be a Herculean task. That leaders of other countries do not share his sense of urgency is also something that he has come to accept, but that does not stop him from working tirelessly to convince them to see things from his point of view. He keeps on reiterating the common sensical knowledge that global warming will not only affect his archipelago but the entire planet as well (“Manhattan is just as low as Male,” he says). But as we see in the documentary, convincing countries such as China and India to agree to even just a vague commitment to reduce carbon emissions requires mettles of steel forged in coal-free factories. Luckily, Nasheed is up to the task.
The film, however, tends to worship Nasheed a bit too much, and the movie would have been more interesting had it made more of an attempt to humanize him and expose some of his flaws instead of showing a completely hagiographic portrayal. This is a man who could do no wrong, yet a quick scan at his Wikipedia entry shows a presidency mired with resignations, accusations, and coup attempts. But in any case, what we have is a compelling character study of a man whose passion and sense of responsibility knows no bounds, and it succeeds in spreading and making a case for his environmental message.
Another highlight of the movie is the way it showed the inner workings of international organizations and the scurrying and midnight deals that Nasheed had to do in order to draw out concessions from other countries. While he is a classic liberal that believes in the power of institutions and consensus-building, he approaches the negotiation table with all the pragmatism borne out of his acceptance of hardly malleable political realities. Seeing him work different actors in different ways to draw out the same conclusions is an entertaining watch showing politics in its purest form.
Despite the attempts at discrediting the scientific basis of climate change or the ideological barriers that stand in the way, Nasheed fights back and frames the problem as a literal matter of life and death for his people. The Island President leaves you with an impression of the weight of the burden on his shoulders, and it is that feeling of bleakness that Nasheed hopes will compel people to act and start a green revolution. The ending leaves you with the hope that if the right people speak up, there is a possibility for change. Mohammed Nasheed has been gifted with this voice.